Television: O J makes a killing on the Beeb

IF CHILD-KILLER Mary Bell had chosen Ruby Wax as her interlocutor, and accepted her infamous payments from the BBC light-entertainment department, not from a firm of publishers, perhaps the brouhaha that engulfed the journalistic and political worlds last week would never have blown up.

It is certainly remarkable that the Prime Minister should condemn the monies paid to a woman who murdered at the age of 11, exactly 30 years ago (and is a case-study in redemption), on the very same day that the Beeb transmits an interview with a man who - according to a jury - was responsible for the deaths of two innocent people just four years ago, who has never admitted culpability, and who walked away from this encounter richer to the tune of 10 big ones.

The man in question was, of course, OJ Simpson, and the show Ruby Wax Meets ... (BBC1, Wednesday). Previous Wax meetees have been the Duchess of York and a host of Hollywood nobs, with whom Ruby has been suitably playful, and whose celebrity she has helped to deconstruct. But the worst that any of them has been guilty of has been bad taste, bad acting, or, in the case of Fergie, both.

With this interview, however, Ruby - a woman of real wit and speed of thought - announced her intention to broaden her remit beyond superficiality and tinsel, and to take on the biggies: life, death, morality, the meaning of the universe. She can do funny, runs the message, she can do serious. It's a shame that Pol Pot is dead and Idi Amin in exile, and that the era of the great televisual dictators is over - but Boris Yeltsin is still there, just waiting to have his dacha full of elephantine Y-fronts and empty vodka bottles given the once over by the brassy broad from Brooklyn.

Ruby has not, of course, pioneered this odd rendezvous between the semi- fictional comedy-turn and the all-too-real. Last month we had the surreal spectacle of Mrs Merton (who is, let us remind ourselves, a young cosmopolitan woman dressed up as an elderly suburban one) tackling the foul Bernard Manning on the question of racism, assisted by actor Richard Wilson. The day surely cannot be far off when Stephen Hawking gives his valedictory interview to Alan Partridge, when Edna Everage quizzes Yasser Arafat, and - best of all - when Lily Savage interviews Tony Blair about entrance to the single currency ("Worra you gonna do wi' the Queen's Head, Tone? No, stop it you lot!") At this rate, pretty soon we'll have the editor of one of those tabloid "lifestyle" supplements running the Independent. But no, that would be ridiculous.

The problem faced by our Rube was evident from the start, as we were given a recap of the OJ case, reminding us - among other things - how Nicole Simpson's throat was slashed "so that she was almost decapitated", and showing, once more, pictures of the bloody sheet. This was no part- lurid, part-terrible penny dreadful to be played for laughs and shudders, this was the killing of a mother of two little children, and a young man - someone's son - who got in the way.

So, was the exercise justified by the result? Did Ruby do more than entertain us (an objective which the circumstances rendered inadequate on its own)? Did she, journalistically, get anywhere?

Maybe. Certainly OJ emerged as a fantasist, whose use of sexualised language seemed inappropriate and sinister. But one had no way of telling whether this form of mild madness was the cause of his predicament or the consequence of it. What had he been like before (one of the key questions asked by Gitta Sereny in her book about Bell)?

It seems to me there are a number of problems here. I cannot imagine this interview being conducted by one of the BBC's top journos. Would Paxman have been allowed to pay pounds 10K from the news budget to get a day with OJ? Or a penny to get a week with Bell? Of course not. The Beeb has guidelines about this sort of thing. And perhaps Ruby wouldn't have been permitted to do Mary either, because her murders happened here. OJ's an American, after all, as were the murdered Nicole and Ron Goldman, and dead Americans don't really count.

Remarkably, given the great seriousness of its content, Question Time (BBC1, Thursday) was chaired by David Dimbleby, and not Rory Bremner. With Jack Straw and Paddy Ashdown both on the show, the producers wisely allowed the Mary Bell discussion to breathe, and the result was a fascinating debate, with both men speaking honestly and passionately. But - and I have to return to it - given Straw's outrage at Sereny, it was extraordinary that he didn't speak out against the OJ business.

In many ways Ruby and OJ made a more likely partnership than did another pair of co-voyagers whose adventures appeared this week: the delightful and dishevelled Jon Ronson, and the gob-on- legs that is the Reverend Ian Paisley.

Witness: Dr Paisley, I Presume (C4, Monday), took the diminutive Guardian journalist to Cameroon, where the great man was preaching to the religious sectarians of West Africa. Seeing them side by side, the weeny Jew and the vast Gentile, was to invite the most awful of race memories. Paisley could easily have eaten Ronson by mistake.

Some reviewers have said that, having seen this programme, they felt warmer towards the Antrim Ear-blaster. Apparently they had discerned qualities of genuine warmth that had previously eluded them. But my impression is that Ronson felt differently. Paisley came over as a megalomaniac, using and abusing those around him, forcing them always to consult his needs and wishes before their own. "I find myself wanting to please him," commented Ronson at one point, also observing how a blind African "martyr" (don't ask) was used in a Paisley photo-op, and then ignored for the rest of a visit.

The Paisley attitude was neatly summed up in the wittily shot sequence in which he played a local drum as though it were a lambeg and then invited a little boy to follow his lead: "Now young man," he thundered, "learn that tune." As he strode off, the African boy began to drum out a rhythm of extraordinary complexity and musicality. Suddenly, one realised why the African National Congress was in Belfast last week. Sometimes we are the ones who need the missionaries.

That might also help explain why the wonderful Darcus Howe seemed to express so much better the vigour of modern Britain, than did the etiolated figure of Peregrine Worsthorne (although I have to admit to a certain partiality to Perry). In England, My England (C4, Sunday) the pair tested their two views of the state of race relations and nationhood in the separate countries from which they emerged. Perry took us to Stowe school and Much Hadham village, Darcus to Hampstead Comp (in Kilburn) and Brixton.

I don't know that we found out much about race, but the journey was diverting. Darcus Howe is a large man with a shaven head, and, dressed in a capacious maroon jacket with drainpipe trousers, he resembled a huge blackcurrant Mivvi with chocolate ice-cream inside. Perry was his usual cravatted and waistcoated self. When he spoke about his kinship with the Normans one imagined he was talking about Sir Botolph de Worsthorne who came over with the Conqueror. Disappointingly, he then introduced us to his step-cousin, Brian Norman, of Dunempire, Much Hadham.

And that was the thing, really. Perry's world was a passing one, the one that the Countryside March rallied to mourn, a world of villages with no commuters, of schools with no Jews, of no blacks except nawabs, a world of clear, unblurred identities, of politeness and slow movement. But at Stowe as much as at Hampstead school, such neatness was a thing of the past. Identities were put on and taken off again according to preference. "I don't know what I am," was not a plea for help, a cry for clarification, it was more a statement that - in a world that offers so much choice and possibility - what you are, where you come from, may not be an important matter.

No, increasingly what it all amounts to, what counts, is not the nature of your background, or what you once were, but whether or not - right now - you are prepared to look at the world in an intelligent, sceptical, engaged and compassionate way. If you are, then it doesn't matter so much who does the interviews. But if you are not ...