Television Review

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IT'S ALWAYS been easy to dismiss Julie Andrews as a performer who never managed to project anything onto a screen but an aura of glacial wholesomeness. After last night's Omnibus (BBC1), it's even easier. If you want a smart assessment of a star, the best place to turn is David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film. Throughout her career, writes Thomson, Andrews "valiantly resisted being interesting". In David Horn's documentary, she continued to fight the good fight. She smiled that tight smile against a variety of featureless hotel-suite backgrounds. She appeared in a range of different shades of lip-gloss. The veins in her neck stood out as she emphasised some uncontentious point. Any note of tragedy was efficiently suppressed. Any whiff of controversy was dispersed with a blast of the Alpine-fresh air of good PR.

Andrews was a child star before she got her big break (a stint on Broadway in The Boy Friend), and the most revealing part of Horn's film focused on these early days which she spent touring the country in her parents' variety act. Barbara Andrews played the piano, Julie's stepfather, Ted, belted out warbly tenor material of the Hey-Ho- Come-to-the-Fair sort, and Julie provided twittery renditions of operatic arias. She appeared on variety bills with Fred Emney, Jon Pertwee and Wally Boag (balloon sculptor extraordinaire, in case you don't remember him) and took London by storm when she played "the Egg" in a production of Humpty Dumpty. (This I found rather baffling - surely Humpty himself is the Egg in Humpty Dumpty?) As her popularity grew, her name began to get billed over that of her parents.

Here, somewhere behind the saccharine grins and cosy anecdotes, was a story worth telling. Andrews' first husband, the stage designer Tony Walton - who, true to type, still counts Julie as one of his favourite things - suggested that Ted was mightily resentful of his step-daughter's success. Walton implied that he felt humiliated when she became the breadwinner in the family, and that he took to drink as a consequence. Julie, for her part, nearly declined her first role on Broadway in order to stay with her family. Unfortunately, as soon as The Boy Friend found its place in the narrative, Ted and Barbara vanished from it. The impression generated was that Julie left England and never had anything to do with her parents again.

Instead of pursuing this line of inquiry, Horn shoved us back into the company of old stage actors like Roddy McDowall and Michael Bentine, who were brought in to pay tribute to Julie's radiant prissiness. "She was a very private person, whereas I effervesced off in all directions," said Dilys Laye. There was even room for McDowall to eulogise the career of Julie's second husband, Blake Edwards: "He's made so many films that are just terrific," he cooed. Obviously he'd forgotten those Pink Panther movies shot after the death of Peter Sellers and the disastrous 1986 Andrews vehicle That's Life ("Life should have sued," says Thomson). Any documentary which allows you to go to bed thinking that Blake Edwards is some sort of genius must be badly wrong somewhere.

Back to the Floor (BBC2) ended its run last night by sending Pickfords' director Grant Whitaker back to the sweaty end of the removals business. The similar BBC2 lifeswap series, Living with the Enemy, only served to reinforce the prejudices of the participants, but allowing TV to temporarily turn the masters into the minions has allowed those involved in this series to reap tangible benefits. True, you watch it for its Schadenfreude value - you're certainly encouraged to enjoy scenes of Whitaker poring over his blisters and narrowly avoiding getting crushed by a slippery wardrobe. However, by the end of Nicola Bungey's film, the boss man had not only been put through the industrial- relations equivalent of the stocks, but he'd used the experience to make significant improvements to company practice. As a result of the programme, Whitaker went back to the boardroom and told his colleagues that they were exploiting their workers. State-of-the-art trolleys and mobile phones were issued to all van crews, and casual workers found themselves with full-time contracts. If the Back to the Floor crew turned up in every British workplace, it might effect a quiet revolution.

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