TELEVISION / Not a lot of people know that: John Lyttle on Jonathan Ross's Fantastic Facts

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The Independent Culture
A FANTASTIC fact that Fantastic Facts (ITV) didn't mention, despite host Jonathan Ross' declaration that 'You'll get nothing but the truth here', is that it's a remixed sampling of the US show That's Incredible, itself a mutation of Ripley's Believe It Or Not. No matter. This 'new' series' ancestry is plain, from the blatantly synthetic hues of the overlit studio set to the overt pillaging of American material and American loonies. Why, even the archive footage featured an upside-down Stateside skater in what appeared to be the first suicide attempt committed to film. Would the daft bugger break his neck or not? The tension was bearable.

Indeed, the problem with the first episode of Fantastic Facts was general bearability. Incredible went as low as US pop culture could stoop, including such 'inspiring' treats as a day in the life of a limbless boy. Facts could only offer, at excessive length, via satellite (for inflated importance), Todd Peterson of The Tennessee Fainting Goats Association. When one of his charges went into a swoon the moment was instantly reprised to huge guffaws. Wow] The Capra aegagrus fell over. . . twice] Taking its cue from the ever- professional Ross, a presenter famous for making the audience feel privy to the 'in' nature of every joke, the tone was hip, ironic, absurd. Englishness would out: witness resident inventor Wilf Lunn and his exploding dung distributor (some might dub this appropriate symbolism).

The authenthic whiff of exploitation hit the airwaves just twice. Fiona Armstrong's report on a blind man breaking a land speed record - a report which ended with Armstrong clambering into the new title holder's car with the quip, 'Okay Peter, back to London' - and the appearance of stuntman Tip Tipping, who announced that stunts had to be as spectacular, realistic and 'as safe' as possible. Tipping was killed doing his job earlier this year, though we lucky viewers could watch him crash down stairs, dangle from a plane and set fire to himself. Fantastic Facts dedicated itself to his memory: sleaze or what?

Inside Story: New York Law (BBC1) was meant to be about that city's criminal justice system and its cold- blooded reliance on plea bargaining. Ultimately, it was about racial schism: black meat being processed through a white sausage factory, guilty and innocent alike accepting, say, one to three years behind bars because sticking to the right to a trial might take about as long and would anger authorities who now prized 'promptness, certainty and finality' over the more nebulous concept of - dare we mention it? - justice.

Richard Denton's eminently cogent film - minimum voiceover, maxmium testimony - explained mathematically how such a system evolved. New York has prisoner space for 40,000. 1992 alone saw 2,000 murders, 2,800 reported rapes, 40,000 assaults, 90,000 robberies and 100,000 burglaries. You could see the pressure in the faces of the police officers, legal aid lawyers and even etched upon the visage of Judge Harold Rothway, whose contempt for the accused ('It can be a rational choice for the innocent to plead guilty') was matched by his certainty: 'Everything I do is honourable'. Tell that to the bewildered black man who accepted his deal, shook his bowed head and stammered out, 'No, I'm not sure.'

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