TELEVISION / Oranges have never been the only fruit

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The Independent Culture
IN SOME distant century the journals of Camille Paglia will fall into the hands of a brilliant decoder. Hitherto known as a fin- de-millennium in-yer-face lesbian syntax- mangler, with a little meticulous unscrambling Paglia will be revealed unclothed: 'Stayed in again and watched a new programme last night. It was about a 19th-century woman from Halifax called Anne Lister, who wrote a secret diary about her love for women. Disgusting] Surely such practices are just make-believe? Must get Mr P to write a letter of complaint to the people who put out this offensive tripe.'

After The Opening of the Channel Tunnel (BBC 1) we don't exactly need further proof that ancient enemies can think alike, but then Anne Lister, whose 6000- page journal lay undeciphered for 135 years, cropped up on two competing channels in the same week. There she was on 'Lesbians Unclothed', another of Ms Paglia's provocative analyses for Without Walls (C4), and again in the first part of A Skirt through History (BBC 2). Is this an International Lesbian Week that no one told us about, or just a straight case of serendipity?

In a new series that dramatises the writings of remarkable but unremarked women, Anne Lister was a good place to start: history suggests that, in response to a sapphic massage, the ratings graph will show impressive signs of tumescence. We joined the story with the marriage of her 'friend' Mariana Balcombe to a wealthy widower whose death the lovers expected any minute. For each new year that Mariana's husband remained stubbornly alive, we were fed an item of literary news - Charlotte Bronte's birth, Jane Austen's death, the publication of Don Juan. Although more furtively done than in the Paglia essay, the argument implied that anyone who could hold a pen in those days was up to no good with their own sex.

This was one of those rare drama-documentaries that makes a virtue of the absence of a budget. When the newly-wed Mariana was drawn by horses away from the church, two anachronistic conveyances purred by, like the Lamborghini captured for eternity in the chariot scene in Ben Hur. When Anne walked through Halifax, the rest of the cast seemed to be dressed in late-20th-century dress. The invention of GMT being a long way off, much was made of the discrepancy between clocks. Here, said the picture, was a woman out of time.

With a bust of Byron behind her and a hyperactive zoom lens before her, Julia Ford quoted from the diaries like a modern-day talking head. More than costumes and furniture and the secrecy of Anne's proclivity, what carried you back to the early 19th century was the exquisite precision of the language. Of one unvanquished acquaintance Anne wrote: 'I wish to wean my heart from her, and fix it more propitiously.' Philippa Lowthorpe's quiet directorial style was just as elegant.

Anne's next seduction took place in Paris, in the days when the coupling of women was as unthinkable as the coupling of England and France. The long dark subterranean cavity was penetrated yesterday by the great-great-granddaughter of the monarch who famously refused to believe in lesbianism. Everyone agreed that it was a deeply symbolic moment.

Surrounded by bodyguards, the French President and sundry Not Very Important Persons, Queen Elizabeth II deigned to hold her own umbrella. 'Certainly one for the history books, this,' said a BBC commentator whose name will not make it into the history books (or even into this column). Afterwards, Anne and Nick in Boulogne asked trans-Manche TV personality Chantalle Cuer why our two races are so different. When the Tunnel got the go- ahead, she explained, all England fretted about terrorism, whereas 'we immediately go on the seventh sky'. The official party had yet to dine, but Chantalle was already out to luncheon.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away

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