Television Review

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The Independent Culture
I DON'T think you could accuse The Disabled Century (BBC2) of prettifying its subject. The first part of David Hevey's trilogy was full of disturbing images of disability: a hand with a stump for a thumb, a dead eye staring white from a head gnarled like a lump of wood, a face so wizened it looked like a mask or a doll, bodies twisted or foreshortened.

And the pictures were matched by stories of pain and humiliation. One man told of his boyhood in the Thirties, living on the fourth floor of a block of flats: it took him two minutes to descend the stairs, five minutes to get back; every Saturday morning he would crawl a mile and a half to see the children's pictures at the cinema. But these were the good times, when he was "just one of the kids, and that was that. They never queried why I couldn't walk or anything." When war came, and the able-bodied children were evacuated to the countryside, he was packed off to an institution and stuck in a wheelchair; that was when he realised he was different.

A woman described being strapped to a cradle for two and a half years, to try to correct the curvature of her spine; a man remembered being rejected for countless jobs because he was "too short" - too short, even, to be a watchmaker. A deaf woman recalled setting off for a seaside holiday with her mother: it was only when the train door shut and her mother stayed on the platform that she knew she was being sent away to an institution (this last story I found particularly saddening, with its chilly echoes of Nazi Germany).

Given the stories, the programme's sometimes angry tone, its unwillingness to permit optimism, was understandable. But the indignation was undermined by the mannered, fidgety filming: an old man who had spent most of his life locked away in institutions because he was "learning disabled" - the careful phraseology is sometimes frustrating in its vagueness - was filmed wearing a dunce's cap. It was hard to see how that prankish indignity did anything to alleviate the other indignities he had suffered. The film switched between colour and black-and-white, speeded up and slowed down, while the camera pushed itself up under a man's chin, leering up his nostril.

This level of trickery was distracting, and looked distrustful: did Hevey not trust these people's words and faces to tell the stories alone? Did he not trust the viewer to watch them, with all their flaws? Perhaps he was right. But still, The Disabled Century granted the disabled a voice - Paul Scofield's voice, no less - and it cajoled the viewer into listening.

Another disadvantaged group is starting to dominate Ellen (C4). I haven't watched this programme since she came out as a lesbian - not from any principle, you understand; it's been a matter of awkward time-slot and a fear that it isn't going to be funny any more. The core of Ellen's comedy is the way that basic frankness and sarcasm are held in check by cowardice and a desperate need to be liked, so that every conversation seems like a constant evasion. Now we know a lot of what she was evading. Remember Moonlighting? Years of amusing flirting between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd; then they finally got it on, and the whole thing went to pot. Consummations are to be avoided.

Last night's episode concerned Ellen's worries that she was being defined solely by her sexuality. Under pressure from a friend, she hired a plumber out of "Gay Yellow Pages", who flooded her kitchen. At her coming out party, she found herself saddled with gay beer and even gay ice, while gay-conscious guests refused to eat her nachos because they were made by a gay-unfriendly company. It's all a bit ironic, really: Ellen the character steadfastly resisted being sidetracked by her sexuality; Ellen the show threatens to be completely derailed by the topic.

Among all the issues and learning going on, though, there were still some excellent gags: at the party, Ellen's repellent colleague Joe - crew-cut, thick-rimmed glasses, vast paunch - held a group of women spellbound with his stories. Dippy Audrey leaned over: "You are aware, Joseph, that your anecdotes, though highly amusing, will not make these women find you attractive in that way?" Joe snarled out of the corner of his mouth: "Get lost, Audrey. They think I'm a chick." It's a hard battle, but hugs and learning are being kept at bay.