Television Review

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The Independent Culture
TO ASK THE question "Who does Julie Burchill think she is?", makes it sound as if there might be some doubt or disagreement about it - she may think she's the business, is the implication, yet some people have other ideas. But the weirdest thing about last night's Close Up (BBC2) on "Britain's most controversial columnist" - which took that question for its title - was that there seemed to be no disagreement at all. Julie Burchill thinks she is a genius, and so does everybody else; and they were queueing up to say so.

Even her enemies think highly of her - we were promised a selection of these, but, as it turned out, the only one the film managed to dig up was her former ally at the Modern Review, Toby Young. Yet, for the most part, even he spoke in exactly the same awed tones as the others about her cleverness and wit. When he did criticise her, it was in terms that echoed uncannily her own view of herself - both felt that she had become her mask, that her writing style had leaked into her private life. Also, although he accused her of betraying those who had tried to protect her, she admitted candidly that she did not behave decently towards other people, and that she had no desire to. The nastiest thing Young could bring himself to utter was the suggestion that it would have been good if she had died in a car-crash five years ago. But even saying that was to elevate her into the same league as James Dean and, of course, her own beloved Diana.

This unanimity must be highly gratifying for Julie Burchill, but from the viewer's point of view it made for slightly dull television. To some extent this may have been unavoidable - after all, "Britain's most controversial columnist" is not a very interesting or important position to hold - but Simon Chu's film compounded the problem by making her sound a less interesting journalist than she is. Some of the positions she was quoted as having adopted (female circumcision is barbaric, feng shui is a load of nonsense; Camille Paglia is a crazy old dyke) sound pretty much like common sense. Her more striking statements (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a welcome civilising mission; African nations get away with female circumcision because of white liberal guilt) were offered without any supporting arguments, leaving the impression that these were just poses adopted for the sake of being contrary. Groping around for an instance of the cleverness and wit that so enthralled him, Toby Young came up with an occasion when she smartly bested the well-known T-shirt sloganiser and Conservative Party supporter Katherine Hamnett at repartee. Well, pardon me, but getting one-up on a fashion designer is not the sort of intellectual effort that's going to leave you needing a sit-down and a nice strong cuppa.

Perhaps I should declare an interest: like, I imagine, most journalists who have read her with any care, I do suffer from intermittent envy - not just of her pay-packets, but of the startling directness, the sheer lack of conscience that she is sometimes capable of. But I'm not a fan: self-contradiction, grudge settling, soundbites masquerading as Wildean epigrams make her hard to take. What emerged here was a picture of self-satisfaction verging on self-delusion; the only thing that redeemed the film was the shock of Ms Burchill's physical presence - a piercingly fragile West Country voice issuing from what is now a massive, larval-looking frame.

After Britain's most controversial columnist, Britain's most controversial drama series. Queer as Folk (C4) is not simply a drama about gay men, it offers some fairly explicit views of gay sexual practices, some of them being carried out on an underage boy. Short of mooning the Queen Mother (God bless her), it's hard to think of anything better calculated to rouse the anger of the tabloids, so one feels a duty to defend it. But honestly, the men in Russell T Davies's drama, with their rabbity, unchecked impulses and their feckless lifestyles, are not a sympathetic bunch. Least of all Stuart, the homme fatal at the centre, whose thoroughgoing egoism is absurdly overwritten, and whose loft-style apartment is quite repellently chic. Go forward, you men of Tunbridge Wells! Advance, you National Viewers and Listeners! And God speed your mission, as far as I'm concerned.