Television Review

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The Independent Culture
ON A WEEKEND that is itself an extended celebration of the cult of personality, it was appropriate that biography should be uppermost in TV schedulers' minds. The South Bank Show (Sun, ITV) began the Easter deification with a profile of Dolly Parton.

There was some amusing pre-interview banter, with Bragg and Parton complimenting each other on their hair. "You have beautiful hair," Parton opened. "So do you - I just had a haircut, especially in your honour," Bragg replied. "Well, good... it worked," Parton countered, as if in the functional nether world of Tennessee's Smoky Mountains having a haircut was like fixing a flat tyre.

While I have no reason to dispute Parton's account of a tough childhood, her adult retelling of the details comes across like a professional caricature of poverty. "Believe me, when I was a young girl working in them honky tonks, I was pretty much left on my own to fight off all of them good ole boys," Dolly hollered. "I just used my good common horse sense, all of that stuff I'd learnt as a mountain girl." From Parton's lips the phrase "mountain girl" sounded as if she was describing a different species, quite conceivably a relative of the mountain goat.

Bragg's main contribution, since his habitually firm grasp of the subject matter was for once relatively weak, was his rakishness. Parton at one point spoke disarmingly of "trollops". The camera pointed back at Bragg, grinning widely with both rows of teeth, his left eyebrow cocked at a jaunty angle. As a mode of interrogation, however, calculated flirtation was never likely to reveal much about Parton, a woman whose career has been based on it.

In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (Sat BBC2), a Bookmark special, marked 10 years since the author's death and was similarly indulgent. While it is laudable to attempt a "proper" biography, two one-hour films on consecutive nights diluted Chatwin's already sparse legacy. The extra running time was filled out with praise and tributes rather than with the balanced, hard-boiled assessment that an almost mythical figure such as Chatwin requires.

More criticism would have produced a more balanced film, for, when it came, it was incisive and would have bolstered, rather than undermined, the case made by Nicholas Shakespeare, the writer and narrator of the programme. Salman Rushdie was spot on with his description of Chatwin's style as "arch" as he was with a later insight that "there was always something missing in what he wrote as opposed to the person that you met". This Rushdie construed to be his sexuality, but the insight did highlight a fundamental emptiness in Chatwin's writing.

Rushdie aside, contributors were too willing to conflate his charming nature with its only remaining palpable expression, his books. Although Chatwin is undoubtedly an interesting figure of some literary significance, the result was an intoxicated assessment. Film director Werner Herzog was doubtless moved by the friendship of a dear, unique man, but it is surely overstating the case to describe Chatwin as the most original voice since Joseph Conrad.

Robert Hanks is away

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