Television Review

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The Independent Culture
TELEVISION IS LIKE one of those fairweather churchgoers who only show their face in the house of God at Christmas and Easter. You can tell it doesn't set much store by the liturgical small print when, to celebrate the birth of Christ, it spends its time honouring the dead. This Christmas, documentaries laid to rest Ted Hughes and John Wells. A repeat of Father Ted remembered Dermot Morgan. There was an alternative Christmas message from the parents of Stephen Lawrence. 'Tis the season to be buried.

Perhaps this is why top-drawer arts bio-docs are rife at an otherwise unchallenging time of year. "Force of Nature", a Close Up film about Hughes (BBC2), was a double memorial, which remembered the poet in the act of remembering Sylvia Plath. "She got what she wanted," said Germaine Greer, whose ritual feminist demonisation of Hughes has been mollified by time. "Her shadow lay across his life." Despite that shadow, actually cast by more than one suicide, Seamus Heaney called Hughes "a life factory". This sensuously filmed tribute was reluctant to resolve that contradiction. With its stellar cast of contributing voices, it erred towards hagiography, and Hughes came out of it wreathed in a saintly glow. You noted with interest that he was the son of a carpenter.

The highbrow channels are spending Christmas going head to head with two-parters on influential Jewish figures. Arena: The Brian Epstein Story (BBC2) is running concurrently with Bernstein (C4). Both films conclude tonight, but at the halfway point, Epstein is way ahead of Bernstein. There is a lush density to Anthony Wall's elegiac film about the Beatles' manager that you expect from Arena. The interviews have been layered over old footage and new with imagination and care. They're also thoughtfully located. Gerry Marsden was filmed on the Mersey ferry, just like in the song. He recalled complaining that Epstein didn't pay "my other artists", as they were dismissively bracketed, as much attention as the Beatles. "They're stars," Epstein retorted. "You're a little lightbulb."

Marianne Faithfull placed Epstein in the actor-manager tradition of Binkie Beaumont, but, with hindsight, you could say there was also something Mandelsonian about him - a solitary Svengali of discerning taste who pulled strings and rose weightlessly. Only I'm not sure if Mandelsonian means something different now. The picture you get is of the fussiness in Epstein's epicureanism, a gentility at odds with the whirling excitement of a world he helped to create and, at least initially, even controlled. Paul McCartney remembered him lying in his immaculate suit on a bed in an American hotel smoking marijuana, saying "I'm a Jew!" and giggling helplessly. You could almost say that he embodied the great struggle between the Fifties and the Sixties, between bottling it up and letting it all hang out. "I'm red hot for sex," he wrote in one of his last letters, but however much he wrote about it, he didn't seem to talk about it, which must have been a factor in his death.

The Bernstein film, by Susan Lacy, is a more breathless appreciation, as anything narrated by Ned Sherrin will always be. The narrative treats its subject with the same joshing familiarity as the construction workers on Brooklyn Bridge who took off their hard hats as his funeral cortege sailed past and shouted, "Goodbye, Lenny, goodbye!" In this account his performances are always "legendary", nations are taken "by storm", he is "mobbed wherever he went". You want to be told something new. Martha Gellhorn said he was "a force of nature", echoing Close Up's encapsulation of Ted Hughes. But so far there is no real inquiry into Bernstein's vanity or, apart from a passing allusion to his bisexuality, his prodigious appetites.

Talking of which, there was bingeing as usual elsewhere on television. The economical way of ticking off the usual celebs without enduring all their Christmas specials was to watch Before They Were Famous III (BBC1), which disinters old clips of the stars. The usual suspects were all there - Leslie Ash, Carol Smillie etc - relentlessly chasing fame from an early age, apart from the young Alan Davies, caught mooching about on Greenham Common.

They were even watching Christmas television in Raymond Briggs's The Bear. Guess what was on? The Snowman. Have a metatextual Christmas.