TELEVISION / Not just an Everage victim

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The Independent Culture
IN THE film Dead of Night (C4), a ventriloquist is driven mad by his dummy who he thinks has taken on a ferocious life of its own. On The Late Show (BBC2), Barry Humphries was interviewed about his autobiography by Dame Edna Everage, his creation who has taken on a ferocious life of her own. 'Excuse I, Barry,' she said with a grammatical infelicity calculated to make Humphries shudder till the chalk shook off his exquisite pin-striped suit. 'Excuse I, but the portrayal of your mother, the woman from whose loins you sprang, is not a nice portrait, is it, Barry?' The ego looked at the alter ego as a rabbit looks at a snake. For once it really was spooky, possums.

Humphries' humour doesn't make for comfortable laughing. He launched his career with a revue entitled Call Me Madman, and has been tangoing with lunacy ever since. Out of some surreal corner of his vast brain came Edna, the monstrous housewife from Moonee Ponds with enough energy to chew up little aesthetes like Barry for brekkie. His relationship with her has never been some flouncy, Danny La Rue affair: small-minded and big- mouthed, she fascinates, disgusts and almost certainly terrifies him. But who can tell the joker from the joke? The Late Show brought us as close to seeing the place they join as we will ever get, and it made for compelling television.

To give a sense of dialogue, reaction shots were subtly added: wild rictus, head slumped into hands, for Humphries himself; curdled winces and hooting, triumphant laughs ('I think we'll leave our viewers to judge what they think of that reply]') for Edna. 'Don't be frightened, darling, I won't bite you,' Edna said. But her words had teeth: 'Barry, why did you feel it necessary to say that you invented me? My son Kenny said to me, and he was in tears, that he'd read your book and some friends of his flatmate Clifford Smayle had read it, and Kenny said, 'People are saying that you're a man, Mummy.' ' A funny line, but it's Clifford Smayle that gives it the Humphries spin - we all know Clifford, with his Odor-Eaters and his stamp collection. This is Humphries' gift; making the ordinary grotesque, the banal sublime.

That gift gets full rein in Dame Edna's Neighbourhood Watch (ITV), a game-show with a difference - you want to watch it. Elements from Through the Keyhole and Surprise, Surprise are borrowed only to be savagely subverted and turned into a sly critique of domestic life. There are prizes (a Ferrari, diamonds, a box of Black Magic without the soft centres) which no one ever gets enough points to win. Three 'girls' are picked from the all-female audience ('I asked for ordinary women and I certainly got them') to answer questions on homes. But the home in question belongs to one of the contestants, and a camera is waiting there with Madge Allsop, Edna's fossilised bridesmaid, ready to 'rifle through her interior'. Edna relishes the prurience other shows play down ('Look, girls] Knickers under the sink]') and gleefully recycles every bankrupt cliche ('Welcome all to this Happening Show'). There is nothing mindless about Edna's cruelty. Witness her thoughtful tormenting of Margaret: 'This is Margaret's hall; lovely, isn't it? It's simple yet effective. It seems to say . . . what does it say? . . . It says 'Get out of here as soon as possible or you'll go mad.' ' Catastrophes of taste are ruthlessly scrutinised through those rococo specs. And the girls in the audience squeal. Oh, how they squeal, the little darlings. Unwitting accomplices in a brainy boy's revenge on the suffocating stench of Moonee Ponds.

Another kid who got away had his splenetic say in The Tattooed Jungle (Without Walls, C4). Tony Parsons was out to duff up the working class who, he claims, have undergone a terrible transformation from the noble, self- improving creatures of sepia- tinted, Hovis-ad memory to a bunch of obese, pissed, Rottweiler-owning philistines ('They're a bit short, squire, in their heads and in their hearts'). Parsons sounded as if he were reading out an article from some in-yer-Face publication over selected shots of proletarian degradation: peroxide shopgirls tottering down the street, young men at a karaoke night with pale, blue-veined bellies that plopped like haggises. Every so often some archive footage was intercut: a pinnied granny knelt on the cobbles to scrub her front step while a string quartet played something gracious. Ah, the dignity of labour, Tone, brings a lump to your throat, dunnit? Auberon Waugh and Derek Jameson spoke for and against the motion with bile and tears respectively. But it was Parsons and his consuming contempt that fascinated. Once, as Mr Julie Burchill, he was the fiercely articulate voice of punk rock, but a little celebrity has triggered the familiar radical's conversion: from Johnny Rotten to Johnny Righteous faster than you can say Paul Johnson.

You could drive a 'rusty white van' (come on, Tone, how could you forget the furry dice?) through Parsons' arguments. Which was a pity, because even some of the dumb things he said got people talking - and thinking. The working class Parsons is nostalgic for lived in an age of deferred gratification: keep yer nose clean, mind yer p's and q's and They'll see you right. The lesson of the last 30 years is not that better pay, VCRs and chicken nuggets have bred a race of morons, but that in an age when They can no longer see you right, there's no reason to know your place.

I hope Parsons was watching The Searchers (Present Imperfect, BBC2), a plain and moving account of the fate of four Clacton school-leavers. The girls, kindly and decent, were happy to settle for office jobs; the boys scratched against their fate a little longer. The camera made mournful forays to the beach, where breakwaters shelved into the sea like sinking dreams.

In Royal Gardens (BBC2), Sir Roy Strong minced around the lovely grounds of Hampton Court explaining why they should be dug up and restored to their former austerity. Those 300-year-old yews were for the chop: 'I for one can't wait to start,' he sniffed. 'Just look at these excruciating whimsy topiary. And whatever is this?' he hissed, spying a bronze cherub in the buff. I fear this man is on course to become a TV Character. All the ingredients are there: bossiness, battiness and a face you can buy in any good joke- shop: owl specs, bulb nose, salt 'n' pepper 'tache. Sir Roy reminded me of John Pope-Hennessy, who in a beguiling Omnibus the week before last talked about Piero della Francesca as if he were some secret garden to which only he, Sir John, had the key. Welcome to haughtyculture.

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