TELEVISION / Oh hell] Another flow of uniform unmeaning

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The Independent Culture
THE WEEK arrived on a great purple crested wave of kitsch. TV Hell (BBC2) was a kitschfest of mouth-jamming proportions. Here was the hapless Mastermind contestant who got bushwhacked by the dreaded 'pass' impasse syndrome; here were Pan's People doing their thing; here was Norway dressed in red plastic trousers going boom bang-a bang, or perhaps it was la la la, for the Eurovision Song Contest - whichever it was, they earned their nul points. From the same programme, here were Bucks Fizz whipping off their skirts, and here were Abba singing 'Waterloo'. Here was sweet young Dana; here even was Mary Hopkin. Your reviewer collapsed in a state of tremulous bliss.

The main point about the whole evening was that they had got the title wrong. The original idea was that it should be a riposte to Channel 4's evening of old classics, TV Heaven. But TV Heaven had a line-up that included A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, and programmes of equally mouth-crinkling awesomeness. What then is the difference between TV Heaven and TV Hell?

Nothing, is the answer; and that answer is the glory, jest and riddle at the very heart of television. There is so damn much of it, coming at you from all angles, that a coherent TV aesthetic is impossible. Streams of unmediated images don't make for any kind of art form, only a steady flow of uniform Unmeaning. On any Monday evening, of any year, on any channel, you can tune in to pretty much the same sort of kitsch we saw in TV Hell.

Derived from the German word for 'cheapen', kitsch originally meant something bad, as in plaster ducks on the wall. Such is the power of culture merchants, however, it was not long before it became a term of affection. We have all become accustomed to the 'so-bad-it-was-good' school of enjoyment. But when the Seventies deconstructionists declared that matters of excellence were irrelevant and all things had an equal claim on our attention, then the madmen took over the asylum. Small wonder that at street level, 'bad' and 'wicked' both mean 'good'.

One of the main glories of TV Hell, however, was a whole episode of the sorely missed SS Triangle. Here was Kate O'Mara sunbathing topless, all alone on an expanse of upper deck the size of a tennis court. As a succession of embarrassed ship's officers tried to shift her, she said nothing and simply sweetened her smile. It was a smile which left this viewer feeling beatified.

The woman with whom I was watching rather spoiled things by pointing out that she had not removed her sandals, a surefire thing that women do when they sunbathe. But this was the show in which the curtains were always drawn. It may have been against the midday sun, but the more likely explanation was to save building a set outside the window.

It's a Knockout to the strains of 'Nessun dorma', armies of grunting Ancient Brits from Churchill's People, Renaissance princes saying 'Go to Nipples' in The Borgias; the whole farrago lurched on, expertly stitched together by a satanic Angus Deayton and a tortured Paul Merton, with a line-up that ought to have been called These You Have Loved.

What brought it all up short with a very nasty bang was the footage of the TV-am debacle. The rest of the evening could have been described as a lot of people making fools of themselves. But they were mostly willing members of the public, or else actors who can't be held responsible for the material they are asked to utter. Here at last were people making genuine fools of themselves.

Naked treachery was on display. And from people who enjoy an air of superiority conferred by the superstar status of being a 'presenter'. Here was Peter Jay, shaking with suppressed rage while he walked the plank. Here was the famous doorstep press conference from Anna Ford and Angela Rippon, a scene that outranked Lucia di Lammermoor for hysteria. And here was Michael Parkinson, the rat that stayed on the sinking ship, or as he put it, 'took the management's shilling'. He got his comeuppance when forced to introduce Roland Rat. His shit-eating grin made him look as if the rodent was stuck halfway down his gullet.

It is never fun to watch the high and mighty brought low. But this lot aren't high and mighty. They are simply frontmen, and they need the occasional reminder that they are mortal.

Elsewhere, it was a strong week for drama. Buying a Landslide (BBC2) was a meaty political chamber piece from David Edgar, a man whom you might guess loves the manoeuvring that goes on at any committee meeting. At a Camp David-style retreat, a Republican senator is being coached for his forthcoming television debate against the Democratic candidate. This coaching consisted of assembling a group of 'pointy-heads' to act as opposition to the man.

Lined up against him were a born-again, right-to-life woman, two ex-radical men, and a black woman Republican who had uncovered the Senator's unsavoury past. Originally the Senator's game plan was to appeal to the 'fizzy water' people and the 'Brie nibblers'. He soon swung around to wooing his traditional voters, the people who eat raw steak. As a political dramatist, Edgar is streets ahead of all those other radical dramatists who came of age in the late Sixties. He realises that it is not just a case of there being no easy answers; even the questions are not cut and dried. He also realises that the realists will always beat the idealists.

Between The Lines (BBC1), a new 13-parter on the lads in blue, got off to a cracking start. Down at Mulberry Street nick, there is what used to be known as a bent copper. These days they say he is 'doing a bit of private enterprise'. The Head of CID, excellently embodied by Neil Pearson, was roped in by the Complaints Investigation Bureau to investigate his own team. He found the rotten apple all right, but lost the loyalty of all the good coppers. No one likes a nark.

This looks set to be a brave series. The dialogue has the right tang of realism about it, which always gets called 'gritty' for some reason. And it is not afraid to look at dirty tactics, among even the best coppers. What one hopes for in the following episodes is some new debate about the old chestnut: should the police be allowed police themselves?

Fighters (C4), directed by Ron Peck, was an unabashed hymn of praise for boxers. Its lavish images verged upon the homo-erotic. But it was peppered throughout with the usual adenoidal banalities to be expected from men who are walking towards brain damage, one punch at a time. One boxer explained his attraction for the sport. 'I like to 'it people,' he said. Your reviewer was once a boxer, in a small sort of way. It is a good sport. But, as this programme unwittingly confirmed, only for young amateurs.

Allison Pearson returns next week.

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