TELEVISION / Oxford graduates with woman trouble

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The Independent Culture
YOU EXPECT politicians to appear on Newsnight (BBC2), Dispatches (C4), Panorama (BBC1) and every news bulletin going, but Entertainment Express (BBC1), The Late Show (BBC2) and Film 93 (BBC1)? You could not turn on the telly this week without seeing the pudgy, unfailingly amiable face of Bill Clinton. It was possible to enjoy 15 hours in his company. I know because I did so.

The new President, as the media pundits have not stopped telling us, is tele-friendly. Why, he even employed one of his Hollywood buddies, a sitcom director, to coach him in the art of being 'Slick Willie'.

Harry Thomason, said guru, revealed a few of his trade secrets on Tuesday's The Late Show (BBC2). During the campaign, he encouraged Clinton to plunge into the crowds, knowing that - thanks to radio-microphone technology - the candidate's most intimate words would be instantly relayed across the nation, if not the globe. The candidate could thereby have one-to-one chats with the world. The President acknowledged the success of this strategy in his inaugural address, referring to the 'almost magical' technology that immediately beamed his down-home message to billions.

The Late Show highlighted some bumpy moments - particularly the aftermath of the Gennifer Flowers affair early on in the campaign. But as the election approached, Clinton breezed through an MTV interview and played out the famous sax'n' shades session on the Arsenio Hall Show looking as if he had been born in front of a camera.

The Late Show contrasted this with the Republicans' lack of media savvy. On MTV, a tongue- tied, gum-chewing George Bush in a white tracksuit top stumbled in his praise of the young. It brought to mind the example of one of his predecessors, Gerald Ford, reputed to be unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. Meanwhile, Dan Quayle, his Vice-President, was roasted for criticising the soap character Murphy Brown - the American equivalent of speaking ill of the Queen Mother. As Maya Angelou, the writer and performer, shook his hand on the podium at the inaugural ceremony, Quayle still looked uncomfortable. Maybe he was worried she was going to ask him to spell 'poetry'.

Clinton's smoothness shone out on The Inauguration of the President (BBC1). He cheerfully air-conducted the military band through Sousa's 'Liberty Bell' just moments before his swearing- in, perhaps forgetting its unfortunate associations with the Monty Python theme tune.

He seemed similarly unfazed on An American Reunion (BBC1) which was, depending on your point of view, Hollywood's dignified salute to an incoming President, or the biggest career- boosting gig since Live Aid. During two hours in which a procession of rent-a-celebs read out stirring extracts from J F K, F D R and various other initialled sages, Clinton's ability to simultaneously mouth the words, fix his features in a cramp-inducing smile and give moronic thumbs- up signs never waned. (And if Hillary is the brains behind the throne, she hid it well here, aping her husband's every motion.) He also sang along to 'We Are the World', perhaps the first person to do so while asserting his right to strafe those parts of it with whose leaders he doesn't agree.

For its inauguration edition, Panorama (BBC1) had the good idea of sending Peter Jay to take the pulse of the country where he was once British Ambassador. The reporter sometimes had the uncomprehending look of the Prince of Wales touring a sewage plant (Jay has admitted that on this trip he did two things for the first time: ate at McDonald's and stayed in a motel), but his report netted some big names - like the compellingly lucid Labor Secretary Robert Reich (another TV star in the making). Gerry Baker's film also had a keen eye for detail. As Jay talked about how the dereliction of 'Rust Belt' towns such as Cincinnati gave the lie to Ronald Reagan's promises of a beneficial 'trickle-down' economy, the reporter's car was filmed through the broken window of a deserted factory.

Jay's X-ray of the American underbelly was a reminder of the problems Clinton will have to face once the whooping sounds of his dollars 33m ( pounds 22m) inauguration celebrations have died away. To borrow the campaign theme tune borrowed from Fleetwood Mac, don't, Mr President, 'stop thinking about tomorrow'.

The appeal of Inspector Morse (ITV) was that he made us think about yesterday. Police-inspector- turned-media-darling John Stalker put his finger on it in The Mystery of Morse (ITV): 'It's very cleverly packaged nostalgia, wrapped up in Nineties paper.' Nowadays, it seems, a cop who drinks real ale, listens to opera, drives a classic car and feels sick at the sight of blood is a reassuring throwback.

The final episode of his last series was marked by mass hysteria. The Sun wrote a valedictory leader about the inspector, Good Morning . . . with Anne and Nick (BBC1) commemorated him with a competition to guess his first name (most ludicrous suggestion: Conan), and the Daily Mail ran an expensive television advertisement promising to reveal 'The Secrets of Morse'. You would have thought the detective had died, or at least left the screen for good. In fact, both John Thaw and Central Television left the door open for further, one-off films in the future.

In truth, Twilight of the Gods, his farewell to armed robberies, was not a classic. Writer Julian Mitchell - who made a Hitchcockian appearance, as did Colin Dexter, author of the original books - overloaded his script with stereotypes: a Maxwell-alike tycoon, a volcanic diva with a penchant for young men and a camp following of gay assistants.

But, as ever, Morse's canvas was rich in detail. As the east European tycoon, Robert Hardy tinted his sideburns in the mirror while the camera panned across a concentration-camp tattoo on his forearm. On Morse's car radio, after the shooting of the diva, you could hear James Naughtie discussing great Welsh singers. And as the tycoon's helicopter clattered into view, the soundtrack, in an echo of Apocalypse Now, gave the merest hint of 'The Ride of the Valkyries'. It is this meticulousness that has promoted Inspector Morse to a rank above that achieved by most 'tec dramas.

As a nation mourns Morse, we can take heart from the example of another greying Oxford graduate with woman trouble and a love of music - Bill Clinton - and hope that, like the President last year, he will soon be known as 'The Comeback Kid'.

Allison Pearson returns next week.

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