Television Review

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The Independent Culture
I WILL NOW say something heretical. I've never seen the point of short films, and I don't think anyone else really does either. Shorts don't seem to have a target audience. Being films, they are putatively made to be screened in cinemas, but they are rarely shown outside festivals. The one they were all drooling over at last November's London Film Festival was a very frank portrayal of love among homeless Soho junkies called Love Story. Because it starred Patsy Palmer, and was filmed by her husband, Nick Love, it earned buckets of media attention. But it can't have been seen by more than a few hundred people.

So the only chance that shorts have of reaching a wider audience is for them to be shown on television. Over the years, TV has taken a desultory interest in the form, principally in BBC Scotland's Tartan Shorts, BBC Northern Ireland's Northern Lights and Channel 4's 10 x 10. They are a useful stocking filler when the schedule has 15 minutes to kill. Some films, like the Oscar-winning Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life, have been entrancing. But the relationship between small screen and small film has never been comfortable. It's as if television is providing only temporary rental accommodation, and would much rather the tenant found somewhere else to live.

The Talent (BBC2), an annual competition for the genre, is an attempt to formalise the relationship. It is currently being broadcast on BBC2 over two weekends, albeit late at night. Tomorrow night the judges, chaired by Mark Lawson, announce the winner. The title of the strand puts it in a nutshell. Short films are not an end in themselves, but a means to a career in longer films for aspiring writers and directors. Although wholly laudable, there's a whiff of charitable enterprise about the competition. Ultimately, the films are being made not for the audience, but for the makers.

Nor do all the talents on display actually need nurturing. In this week's crop of films, one was written by Colin Bateman, who has already scripted the feature-length Divorcing Jack. The pick of this week's batch was Big Day, by none other than Jim Broadbent. It had the whip hand over the other mostly Celtic films in that it was shot in natural light in Spain, but it also contrived to economise on plot twists and narrative density. Broadbent played a businessman whose wallet is stolen in an elaborate sting in which the thieves squirt gunk over the victim's jacket. Sitting ruefully in a cafe after he has reported the event to the police, he suddenly decides to become a copycat pickpocket, and discreetly fires cappuccino froth through a straw over someone on a neighbouring table. The end.

The film had a wealth of detail but also a sense of spaciousness. That is the trick of the best shorts, to hint at hidden depths within an anecdotal narrative. Some seem to be cramming too much in, as if the best way of graduating to feature films is to try and compress an epic into a quarter of an hour. Those are the ones that get you clock-watching after five minutes. I was mystified by Dah Dit Dah, NG Bristow's elliptical film about a young girl who communicates in morse code. The film seemed to be shot in code. Though Bateman's Jumpers! played very deftly with narrative cliche, I got slightly bored with his parade of suicidal men who stood interminably on the window ledge of a Belfast department store, debating whether or not to fling themselves to their death. You just wanted them, and the film, to get on with it.

If those two films from Northern Ireland looked whimsically at the everyday, two Scottish films could be identified by the way they looked reality squarely in the eyes. In Spitting Distance, a young man who looks after his ailing father packs his rucksack and heads off into the future. The theme of escape is a bog-standard one for a short, because it's a simple concept to deliver in the available time, but it can look like a cop- out. Duck, about a dysfunctional couple of low-lifes, made more of an effort to spring a surprise round every corner. In the wittiest scene, the couple steal a park duck in order to cook it. He is too squeamish to kill the bird, so she grabs the cleaver and severs the head. You may recognise the plotline from somewhere about a pair of Scots squabbling over a lethal weapon, but not the dialogue. "It's fuckin' looking' at me." "You're fuckin' useless. Give me that." As the Bard nearly said, murder most fowl.