Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THREE DAYS into 1999, and already the dawn of the new millennium is starting to seem oppressively close. You don't need to be a weatherman to know that, by the end of the year, you can expect a millennium white- out, ordinary programmes buried by a blizzard of millennial features.

The first flurry came yesterday. Sun Wars (ITV) looked at the practical question of where the millennium will begin. By international convention every day begins at midnight at the Greenwich Observatory, a fact which gives Mandelson's folly an unshakable legal foundation, even if, in aesthetic and intellectual terms, it is built on sand.

Legal definitions don't count for much when there is tourist money to be made, though. Several other locations see in the New Year a good 12 hours before Greenwich and can thus plausibly claim to be the best place to greet the millennium - most of them are warmer than south London in January, too. Fiji, for instance, sits right on the 180 degree meridian, precisely on the other side of the world. The authorities have used satellite surveying to establish the precise spot where the line passes, and have marked it with a large stick with a plastic bag on top - something grander is planned, but it probably won't have quite the same resonance. Unfortunately for the Fijians, the vagaries of the International Date Line mean that Tonga is an hour ahead of them, and the Tongans plan to use the time to produce the first baby of the new millennium (how they can guarantee slotting one in during such a tiny window wasn't revealed). Meanwhile, to the chagrin of Tonga, the Kiribati Islands are another hour ahead, having unilaterally shifted the International Date Line a few 100 miles to the east.

The sense that the whole millennial deal is rather arbitrary was confirmed by Sunday night's Equinox: Apocalypse When? (C4, Sun). This potted history of the calendar, from primitive moon worship to atomic clocks, was accompanied by an account of apocalyptic cults through the ages. It was explained how a millennium, in the ordinary sense of a thousand years, got muddled with the idea of Christ's thousand-year reign on Earth, which in The Revelation of St John the Divine is the run-up to the Last Judgement.

Having established that the only connection between years with three zeros and impending Armageddon was an illusory one, the programme then tried to spin something out of the claim that "a wave of millennial fever is building", finding a lot of pop-video imagery but no solid evidence to back it up. True, there have been a lot of books around with "end" in the title - Francis Fukuyama's The End of History being the locus classicus of the genre - but that probably has more to do with the proliferation of really large bombs and the collapse of really large political systems than with subliminal clock-watching. And the world has never been short of predictions of its own demise. The millennium bug might well produce its own version of Armageddon, if only because panic-buying in the run-up to Y2K may cause petrol-station chaos. But that's all the more reason to steer clear of contradictory nonsense like this.

Impending doom on a more personal scale was the subject of Lost for Words (ITV, Sun), a dramatised version of Deric Longden's account of coping with his mother's slow decline. Thora Hird was thoroughly at home with Mother's eccentric view of things ("They're bifocals. You can read a book and look at your feet at the same time"), and with her slide from indomitable dottiness to ruefully smiling helplessness. Pete Postlethwaite, on the other hand, didn't bring much conviction to the earnest, infinitely patient Deric.

But you could see his problem. This was decay and death deprived of almost everything that makes it painful or undignified. When Deric worried about putting his mother in a home, her GP swiftly reassured him that he had done everything that could be expected, that he'd been under tremendous strain - but the strain was hard to detect. The scene in last week's pilot for Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which Xander confronted his best friend Jessie, now transformed into a vampire, told you more about the perils of intimacy and mortality than this did. This was as cheerful and life- enhancing as rouge on a corpse's cheeks.