TELEVISION / Radiating shamelessness

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The Independent Culture
IMAGINE the faces of 10, 20 Laura Davieses. Puffy and yellow - the faces of dying children. And then imagine a company, owned by the people of a free country, making a substance that is suspected to have damaged the sperm of the fathers of those children, so that an early, painful ending was written into their stories before they were even born. Just think what might happen if that company was not straight with the people who owned it, the people who lived nearby. Forgot to tell them when a fire blazed in the plant for three days and the substance spewed out over their cows and their washing and their prams till the air crackled like crickets. Or what if that company did admit the substance had escaped, but underestimated the amount by a factor of 200? Think how the people might feel if their company said that so many children sickening was a fluke anyway, that it was nothing to do with them, and that even if it was, the people were bloody well going to have to prove it. And then imagine that the children kept on dying.

Granada did, and they came out Fighting for Gemma (ITV). An ambitious drama-documentary, it reconstructed the six-year struggle of lawyers led by Martyn Day (David Threlfall) to prove a link between British Nuclear Fuels' plant at Sellafield and the high incidence of leukaemia in local children. The race to amass the evidence ran parallel with the battle for life of Gemma D'Arcy whose father worked at Sellafield. The opening scene, in Cumbria in 1987, showed four-year-old Gemma (Jennifer Kate Wilson) cartwheeling on a shimmering beach while, offshore, Greenpeace tried to block the pipeline that has turned the Irish Sea into a place where the smart fish wear lead suits.

Soon after, we saw the impish Gemma coping with chemotherapy. When her father blenched at other children who had lost their hair, she called out: 'Don't worry, Dad, you can polish me bald 'ead.' The manipulation of feelings was quite shameless - Wilson's slippage into death was so vivid that in the last minutes you wanted to gulp in air for her. But set beside the greater shamelessness of BNFL it was easy to forgive. The dramatisation was punctuated by real archive interviews with Roger Berry, BNFL's Health and Safety director, who was sanguine at the news about his workers' sperm: 'If someone is that worried, it may be that the proper advice is you don't have a family.' This was as reassuring as the chin-up short film released after the catastrophic reactor fire of 1957: 'Experts believe the danger is already past, but with atoms you can't be too careful]' And don't take any chances with humans who tell you fibs about them, either.

The film's main drawback was also the one faced by Day's team: trying to scrape away the accretion of falsehoods from the nuggets of evidence. Somewhere a drama was hiding, but first you had to negotiate dense dialogues with scientists ('Let's just go through it - if you're going to argue it in court you'd better understand it'). Writer Geoffrey Case tried to lighten the burden of proof by lending Day a dark wryness - not so much gallows as reactor humour. After hearing an account of BNFL's unhappy relationship with the truth, he snorted: 'Investigate them much more, and we'd probably find they shot Kennedy.'

In a strong cast, Threlfall stood out as a decent man driven to indecent obsession by the imbecility of the system. A system whose 'current risk models' require anyone seeking compensation to have had such a huge dose of radiation they should preferably have been strapped to the undercarriage of the Enola Gay as she opened her doors over Hiroshima. When he turned up at the hospital and saw the ghastly change in Gemma, the smile he had come in with stayed on his lips for her sake, but his eyes and his hands - fumbling her present on to the locker - told of feelings in spasm. Day lost his court case last month: BNFL was not responsible on 'the balance of probabilities'. Twelve days later the Health and Safety Executive published a study showing some link between fathers who worked at Sellafield and leukaemic children. As this information scrolled up the screen at the end, I marvelled at what a passive people the British are. If we had half the guts of this programme, the Government would be obliged to stop BNFL treating the families it may have maimed like an unthawed adversary from the Cold War.

Andrzej Fidyk's The Russian Striptease (BBC1, Omnibus) showed what happens when an authoritarian regime lets down its guard and anything else it can take off for money. Weird and quite wonderful, this bumpy, surreal film watched a former censor solemnly auditioning shy teachers in Moscow for an artistic future gyrating their mammaries around the low-spots of Europe. Under Communism, citizens were meant to abide by 'Professor Zalkin's sexual commandments for the revolution', one of which specified that 'sexual life is an inseparable part of the proletarian arsenal. Frequent engagement reduces mental resources which should be conserved for social and scientific needs]'. The proletariat is currently going off like an AK47: sex is no longer a means of control but a tacky commodity. Fidyk told you what he thought of this in subtle ways - filming an elderly woman engineer trying to hide her face as she sells Playboy to supplement her monthly dollars 7 pension, catching a little boy's embarrassed, can't-believe-my-luck smile in the audience of a numbing erotic stage show, cutting from a toothless grandfather dribbling at a 'Miss Breasts Contest' on TV to cows in the byre outside. Clemenceau's observation on the United States is now an uncomfortably snug fit for the former Soviet Union: from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilisation.

Elsewhere, there were so many new series taking off that the reviewer felt like a Spanish air-traffic controller at Whitsun. The Talking Show (C4), a programme about conversation, was a nice idea on paper, and that's where it should have stayed. Michael Ignatieff's Blood and Belonging (BBC2), a six-part exploration of nationalism, made a fine start with a trip down Tito's High Road of Brotherhood and Unity - the spine of a country currently travelling a new, fantastical Low Road of Fratricide and Enmity. Ignatieff was disappointingly mild in his interviews, but made up for it with a critique that was as pungent as any I have heard on this mirthless farce. The film had a real daring, too, turning the volume up on the car radio and driving out into the darkness to the deceptively mellow strains of Sinatra: 'Don't you know, little fool, you never can win?/Use your mentality/Wake up to reality . . .'

The hero of If You See God, Tell Him (BBC1), hit on the head by a wheelbarrow, wakes up to a reality almost as disturbed as former Yugoslavia - he believes advertisements. This 'comedy-drama' by Andrew Marshall and David (One Foot in the Grave) Renwick centres on confusion of the kind wrought by Peter Sellers as the gardener in Being There - a pair of bankers take Godfrey's remark about buying 'a large steak in Sainsbury's' as a hot tip. But its comic impact is nowhere near as great because the other characters are also batty. The grown-ups need to be solemn in their worldliness to make idiots of themselves over the born-again innocent. Richard Briers plays Godfrey gamely with a fixed, top-teeth-only smile, but he'll probably be the only one seeing the funny side for four episodes.

Another tragic pensioner featured in the final part of Denys Blakeway's magnificent Thatcher: The Downing Street Years (BBC1). Surrounded for more than a decade by wets, the Iron Lady has rusted badly and sustained a possibly fatal hole in her side. She summons her trusty courtiers to see off the challenge from Hurricane Heseltine. But Fat Ken, heavy with sorrow, tells her she must go down gracefully or her great legacy may sink with her. One by one they echo his warning: mimsy Peter, nice Chris, mean Malcolm. 'Treachery with a smiling face,' she cries, not recognising an outbreak of sanity when she sees one. Meanwhile, up in Huntingdon, the Tin Man is having dental treatment to fill in the gaps in his education. She knows he is not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Her bird table. But hey, that's politics.