TELEVISION / Pieces of the action

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The Independent Culture
CHANNEL 4 is running a 'Bosnia Season' this week, poking quick consciousness-raising programmes in among the regular schedules. It's like a version of war - short bursts of action, followed by long periods of Brookside. Amid the skirmishes come Refugee Stories, which are informative, and a nightly slot called Artists for Bosnia, which is informative too, but not about Bosnia. Perhaps it is consoling for those caught up in the fighting to think that, in the absence of bombs, the rest of Europe can at least offer some supportive art installations and a guitar duet by John Williams and Paco Pena. Then again, this has to be one of the areas of life in which it is clearly not the thought that counts.

More to the point is The Essential Guide, which is offering us a useful three-part history of the region in 15- minute bursts. Or at least, it would be useful if it wasn't entirely baffling. If ever there was a case for someone explaining things slowly with a blackboard and a piece of chalk, it's the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. There was a model to be followed here in David Owen who, as seen in Monday's documentary, Diplomacy and Deceit, went on America's Donahue programme armed with a map and a stick and managed to get a few of the basics straightened out. But this programme is several degrees more excitable, offering us a shifting montage of images, apparently bent on bringing about the precise confusion of a three- tier conflict in our sitting rooms.

As soon as anyone mentions blood, the screen is suffused with thick red liquid, as if a jam jar has burst behind the projector. At the slightest hint of gunshot or bomb aftermath, the screen suddenly steams like a stack of manure. These, at least, are literal reinforcements of the story. It's harder to know what is meant by filming the experts in sepia with a slight time- lapse - which only lends them a slightly unfortunate Thunderbirds aspect - and giving them big, shimmering silver name-checks, as if they were prizes on The Price is Right. It's all very stimulating visually, but also radically distracting - like trying to take a history lesson in a classroom in which someone is busy installing a new, underfloor heating system.

Still, for anyone having trouble following the plot, or for those who missed the first two episodes but plan to tune in for the final one on Thursday, here's a brief resume of the story so far, achieved by concentrating extremely hard. Basically, Bosnia was always a troubled place, even when it didn't exist. Romans, Barbarians and Turks poured in at various times, mostly for the fighting. Later, when Bosnia did exist (12th century?), things got even worse. Shortly after this, someone mentioned Macedonia, without explaining why. During the 1930s and 1940s, there was a large outbreak of unidentifiable marching figures on the screen. And a couple of noisy assassinations. Then, Bosnia definitely didn't exist, unlike Yugoslavia, which did. Thursday's edition will reach towards the conclusion that, though recognised, Bosnia is now virtually unrecognisable, because of the Serbs. It's a mess, no matter how you look at it.

Diplomacy and Deceit raised the frightening thought that the Clinton administration got absolutely all it knew about Bosnia from a rough cut of The Essential Guide. Evidently, the theory that Bosnia had been invaded by the Serbs went right to the top over there, causing considerable problems for the development of a unified American and European policy. Meanwhile, the members of the European Union fiddled, hamstrung by a concern for their own internal unity. The programme seemed determined to stick it to the diplomats (there were lots of slow-motion shots of key politicians drinking wine) and only stopped just short of ripping up diplomacy as a notion - not especially constructive at this stage, but hard to top as an expression of frustration.