TELEVISION / Pearl Choker dishes the dirt

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The Independent Culture
BUCKINGHAM Palace stated that LWT had received no help from Her Royal Highness in the making of Diana: Portrait of a Princess (ITV). Happy chance, then, that the cameras managed to sneak in during the Princess's private briefing for her ``new, fulfilling role'' with the Red Cross. And what odds am I offered against a crew being in Cardboard City on the very evening the Princess chose to pick an elegant path through the detritus of humanity? A million to one? Ten million to one? Ah, I hear 14 million to one from the tall blonde in the tiara at the back! With that kind of luck you could win The National Lottery (BBC1).

ITV brought the unfinished Diana forward to act as a spoiler against the show that threatened to draw the biggest audience ever. The film provided a cautionary companion piece to its rival; a sting in the tale of good fortune. Here was a woman who 13 years ago appeared to have landed the greatest prize of all and was now reduced to waging a tat-for-tat documentary war with her husband while seeking guidance from Lord Archer and an astrologer called Penny. A wailing Diana had demanded of the stunned Penny, ``Is there light at the end of the tunnel?'' Yes, said Penny; but sadly the stars could not foretell the horror ahead: the light at the end of the tunnel was the whites of Andrew Morton's eyes.

Morton - half account executive, half Woodentop - and Mail reporter Richard Kay were billed as consultants on Diana. Their combined inside knowledge had allowed them to come up with two top witnesses to the Princess's agony: Andrew Morton and Richard Kay. Familiar fare barely reheated from Morton's new book was served up with creamy bits of Grieg to make it easier to swallow. Morton's Sloane Deep Throat - I like to think of her as Pearl Choker - agreed to be interviewed but not to appear. Her intimate insights (God help us, you even start writing like them after a while) were delivered by an actress filmed in the sinister half-light normally reserved for terrorists. A risible ruse, it was designed to lull viewers into thinking this was the real thing. When Pearl whispered that ``Diana was shaken that the Royal system chose pretence over truth'' you knew that the Windsors, too, were playing the ratings game.

Jonathan Dimbleby's film about the Prince of Wales was criticised for craven complicity. Next to Diana it looks like a work of rare detachment and dignity: His Roller to Her customised Toyota. Endless shots of the Princess, peerless lovely in a frothy lilac hat, were small compensation for an amateur package of holiday and community-care clips. Nor could Diana Quick's rich grave narration mute the embarrassment of self-help prose: ``We have recorded the story of Diana's determination to use the bitter lessons of the past to fashion a new future as a Princess, a mother and a woman.'' Good, I suppose, to have it confirmed that the Princess is not planning an old future as a father and a transsexual.

Coyly evasive about Diana's own alleged infidelity (''She has a romantic streak''), the film was quick to attack others. ``I think blame is a major problem for her,'' mused Pearl. Worst of all was the sight of the Princess on a mercy mission to the South Bank before the camera (not officially invited, of course). She will not just stoop to conquer, you thought; she will wake up a derelict, crawl inside his hovel and admire his bed. Hard not to cheer when across the bleak concourse came the watery shout, ``Piss off, you!''.

Until recently, it would have been easier to film the Princess of Wales rubbing fetlocks with James Hewitt than to get a camera inside a British court. The Trial (BBC2) broke TV's duck - in Scotland which, unlike the rest of the country, has no law against it. Reaction was understandably guarded. The US example of Court TV with its Menendez brothers trial and O J Simpson hearing is still sticky in the memory. To watch them was to be reminded that there is nothing so guaranteed to strain the quality of mercy as a bunch of citizens yelling for the guy who looks cutest on camera. But The Trial calmed your fears right away: belying its Between the Lines theme tune, it was soberly and responsibly done.

It is too early to reach a verdict, but on this evidence matter-of-fact murder leaves fiction for dead. A pathologist's flat testimony - ``Both cheekbones were completely free floating'' - has a completely different impact when the face in question was once attached to a real person. One caveat would be that although the judge's summing up took 45 minutes, we got just 45 seconds. Only live coverage would bring home the essential boredom of justice.

Congratulations also to ITV for devoting a week to The War Machine, a robust inquiry into the arms trade. Three feisty documentaries, including one by John Pilger on splendidly indignant form, exposed Whitehall double-speak and triple-think. The only failure was The Dying of the Light, Peter Kosminsky's docudrama about the murder of UN worker Sean Devereux in Somalia. This was a valuable attempt to put a hurt human face on the complex iniquities of arms dealing, but it was unfortunate that that face happened to be white. Even more unhappy that thin material was stretched out to two hours with lingering shots of colourful natives and African singing - Awumba-whey, Awumba-whey - used for sinister effect. A BBC documentary on Devereux made twice the impact in half the time.

The Obituary Show (C4) went to an early grave. Not enough celebrities were prepared to play dead. A pity, because the pretend post-mortem freed witnesses from that guilt the living feel about being alive when badmouthing the deceased. At best, the show encouraged colourful candour, not the grey reticence that grows in the shadow of the tomb. Opinions of Barbara Windsor fell into two camps: thanks for the mammary and no thanks for the bimbo stereotype. Arfur Mullard commended Babs's ``big frepenny bits'' and Carry On clips showed the waif body strapped to the cartoon balloons that cried out for the captions ``Cor!'' and ``Blimey!''. Happily, Babs's last wish to be remembered for acting not anatomy comes a little nearer with her fragile, underplayed performance in EastEnders (BBC1).

Late Monday, I watched Red Sonja (BBC1), a heady brew of kung fu, Tolkien and Parsifal starring big Brigitte Nielsen. Think Wagner without the music, then add Arnold Schwarzenegger with a Sandie Shaw wig and dicky English: ``Your seestur is daiyeeng. Com!'' The pair were just clashing swords to be revenged on evil Queen Gedrenn when it was time to turn over for Julian Barnes in 10 1/2 Chapters (BBC2). The novelist was in conversation with Michael Ignatieff which, as connoisseurs know, is shorthand for trying to make himself heard above Iggy's brainwaves. What is it about this interviewer that makes you want to flay the set? Perhaps it is his uncanny resemblance to Claudia Schiffer's spooky fiance, David Copperfield, or the way he simpers and bats his eyelashes in the cutaways like the infant Elizabeth Taylor angling for a stallion in National Velvet.

As modest in person as he was in dress, Barnes negotiated his host's arrant puffery with a lovely mild candour, his eyes glistening with amusement. But Iggy was unflagging: ``The thing that is said over and over is that you are fantastically clever, fantastically versatile, fantastically amusing and sometimes . . . fail to move. I say some times because if you're asking me my view, I think often I am very moved by your characters.''

Ignatieff clearly thought this was graceful when it was mortifyingly gauche. Preternaturally alert to ironies in literature, he is completely blind to them in life - and consequently no advertisement for the high culture he preaches. I could bear it no longer. Using the remote control it was possible to see Brigitte negotiate the stegosauraus bridge and switch back in time for another of Barnes's thoughtful answers. Who knows, one day we may be able to enjoy Red Sonja and Iggy on the same channel: ``Brigitte Nielsen, the one thing that is said over and over is that you are fantastically tall, fantastically endowed in the embonpoint area, fantastically Scandinavian . . . and sometimes fail to act. I say sometimes because often I am very moved by your acting.'' Brigitte would take out her sword and give her host the answer he deserved.