TELEVISION / Not on a level filming field

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The Independent Culture
WHOEVER said that the camera never lies had not been watching documentaries. Pick a complex story, but keep it simple. This is television. Viewers like their current affairs black and white. The reporter knows several facts don't fit his thesis. But, hell, this is television. We don't need to film those; they'll only weaken the case for action. Back in the editing suite the truth gets spliced: 'OK, Bob, keep the shot where the creep from the UN peacekeeping force looks like Jack Nicholson holding the knife in The Shining, and lose the bit where he says the whole thing is a goddam vale of tears. Thanks.'

All right, I exaggerate. Hell, this is newspapers. But if truth is the first casualty of war, it can't exactly count on a ripe old age in campaigning journalism. On Tuesday we had a rare opportunity to witness the injury first-hand when BBC 2 brought forward William Shawcross's The Killing Fields Election to run opposite John Pilger's Return to Year Zero (ITV). Pilger is the tall, tanned Australian one who can torch forests with his indignation. Shawcross is the louche English one, by John Sessions out of Somerset Maugham. Both calloused Cambodia hands, they had returned to assess the prospects for the country's first democratic election and found that Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge was set to resume its revolutionary approach to population control. On the same side, they could not have tackled the issue more differently. Shawcross is an elegant reader of the game, Bobby Moore to Pilger's Vinny Jones.

Year Zero was ravishingly filmed by David Munro: the very beauty of the place felt like a reproach. It began with helicopters, the air beneath their skimming blades bleary with exertion: so tremulous that the landscape beyond - palm trees, tall grass - appeared to be weeping. Then Pilger was off, rapping the West for rehabilitating the devil, seeing sinister motives in the UN co-operating with the Khmer Rouge.

'Has a Trojan Horse been built for the return of Asia's Hitler?' This is not a question. Pilger doesn't do questions, he does illustrated answers. Like the interview with the UN commander who explained that the Khmer Rouge now prefers to be called the Party of Democratic Kampuchea. If you'd murdered a million of your countrymen you'd want to change your name. But Pilger was having none of it: he pointed out that even the UN had called the activities of the former Khmer Rouge genocide. The officer smiled: 'It may well have, but I'm not going to.' The film cut from his mirthless incisors to the cackling jaws of a heap of skulls. Yes, the Grin Reaper had a friend.

The polite word for the UN's better-the-mass-murderer-you-know line is realpolitik. Pilger's triumph was to prove it is surrealpolitik. At the limb centre, a batch of plastic feet cooled on a windowsill, waiting for some of the 700 amputees a month. The fields are full of mines that the British trained the Khmer Rouge to lay: now the Brits are back, supposedly teaching them to pick them up again in a job-creation scheme out of Catch 22. 'Sure, Cambodia's gonna be de-mined,' said a laconic American veteran. 'One leg at a time.'

Shawcross trod the same path, but found things that Pilger had elected not to see: that the fear of the Khmer . . . sorry, the Party of Democratic Kampuchea, is almost cancelled out by hatred of the corrupt Pnom Penh government, that the PDK is capitalising on racism against Vietnamese resident in Cambodia and has started killing UN workers teaching villagers to vote. He went to the torture centre-turned-museum where Pilger had stood and told us that Pol Pot wanted it closed. What Shawcross said was harder to hear; Cambodians wanted it closed: the only way forward was forgetting.

Shawcross's film was fine journalism, but it was Pilger's that made you angry. After his last one, 18,000 viewers wrote to Margaret Thatcher about Cambodia. That's what he does best, choosing to find truths where there is uncertainty: unnatural selection for the survival of the weakest.

There were more belligerent Australians in Sylvania Waters (BBC 1, first of 12), Paul Watson's wasp-on-the-wall view of family life. Noeline, bottle-blond matriarch of the Baker-Donaher clan, has some pretty strong views on south-east Asians herself: 'The Yellow Peril can go back where they came from]' She also had firm views on this programme, saying it showed the family in a bad light before burning a tape on Australian television. From this episode, in which Till Death Us Do Part met Falcon Crest, it was hard to see what other kind of light might have been available.

I was particularly taken with Laurie, Noeline's husband-pending, who perches on a barstool in canary-yellow trunks with his vast mahogany stomach slopped over the breakfast bar, relieving himself of such universal truths as: 'Drivin' a racin' car's like gonna bed with a good woman. Veray excitin'. When you get out, you think, Jesus, I've gotta do that again]' In 1974, Watson gave the same treatment to the Wilkinses of Reading in The Family, still one of the most riveting things seen on television. Noeline and Laurie's operatic row over the broken Biro suggests this will be a worthy successor.

The fearless 999 (BBC 1) was back, 10 weeks after stuntman Tip Tipping was killed recreating a near-fatal parachute jump. In a country where no one will resign if they have affronted the living, it was inevitable that mortifying the dead would soon get the nod. You half expected presenter Michael Buerk to read out a beyond-the-grave telegram wishing the show all the best, so fond is he of justifying grotesque reconstructions with riders: 'He wrote in to us so that more people might understand what they went through that night.' What is there to understand about being trapped with your small son in a car in a freezing river? And what exactly is added by a close-up of a boy's face gasping underwater?

I like to think that the 'information' they fit in between the tragedies - 'If you find yourself in a car filling up with water, keep as calm as possible]' - is a sign of embarrassment. It cannot be long before the BBC stops scoring this weekly own-ghoul.

It is hard to believe that the same corporation is capable of producing The Nineties (BBC2). The series where nonagenarians recall the times of their lives has not quite lived up to A Labour of Love. Filming all the subjects against a black background is restricting: you find yourself longing for antimacassars. But the talk in Jenny Abbott's I Married a Stranger was so moving and funny, the editing so deft, that the constraints fell away. There is a poem that begins 'When I grow old, I shall wear purple' and the key to this programme lies in that colourful defiance. It's not that Lillian, George, Henrietta, Edith or Dorothy had lived exceptional lives, although they had lived them with rare spirit, but that at their age the fear of telling, the fear of giving offence that padlocks younger tongues, has gone.

TV Heroes (BBC 1, first of nine) addressed one of the medium's great mysteries: how did a man who was daft as a brush, and carrying one, insinuate his didgeridoo into the nation's affections? Rolf Harris came out of that showbiz black hole that threw up Peter Glaze and Auntie Jean who was playing matron to Tinga and Tucker when I still had a bedtime. Danny Baker set just the right tone, somewhere between affection and derision. Seeing Jake the Peg with his extra leg diddlediddledum was an unexpected pleasure, but nothing prepared you for Rolf in the smoke of battle singing 'Two Little Boys' to a perplexed gelding. From Pilger to Rolf it's the same story: an Aussie will do anything to get your attention.

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