Television Review

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You cannot watch the Miss United Kingdom competition on network television these days, both the BBC and ITV having decided some years ago that the event had passed its social sell-by date. You can't watch it, that is, unless the competition is contained within the frame of an observational documentary, an intellectual pasteurisation which guarantees that our spectating will be free from harmful assumptions. The fact that most viewers of Helena Appio's film about the Mr UK 1995 contest for the Modern Times strand (BBC2) will have found themselves caught up in the unsophisticated tension of winners and losers, is neither here nor there - if caught, we can always claim that we were simply watching out of a sociological fascination.

There was a faint whiff of bad faith to all this - a determination to have your beefcake and eat it - but the film was enjoyable enough to make you forget that doubt, as well as a few others. Early in the film Appio had leaned on the scales, editing some perfectly game attempts at a definition of "man of the Nineties" into a slightly confected inarticulacy. When a director has to cut halfway through a man's sentence in order to suggest that he can't finish it, you wonder a little. I was also mildly curious about her big stroke of good fortune - the film would have been much less satisfactory in narrative terms if the indefatigable Simon, repeatedly passed over by regional juries, had not been allowed through to the final on a photographic entry. Had the organisers, Eric and Julia Morley, decided to help her out?

It doesn't greatly matter if they had because Simon, blond and determined, actually went on to win the title. One of the judges explained afterwards that it was his personality that had given him an edge, which was a little startling, as his personality seemed to consist of a faded bumper sticker: "I'm an electrician so I'm gonna cause a few sparks tonight," he said cheerfully, whenever a microphone came near his gleaming teeth.

At first his ambitions had looked poignantly out of touch with reality: "I'd like a career in television, or something like 'at," he muttered when questioned by one judging panel. Look out, Jeremy Paxman, you thought. The sense of futile dreams was further emphasised by his refusal to lie down after a defeat. "I'm not a bitter person," he said after failing to make it through as Mr Derby, "but at the end of the day one of the judges, his sister's goin' out with the winner, yeah?" All such thoughts were forgotten in victory, a vindication of his persistence and a confirmation that castles in the air are sometimes given planning permission. Appio's film had time for other themes too (in particular the general male embarrassment at the very idea of judging other men's looks) but Simon's lesson was the one that stayed with you - if you want your vanity to take you places, then make sure it has not the smallest fissure of self-doubt.

In the last edition of Travelogue (C4), Pete McCarthy went to Laos, a nation which enjoys the dubious distinction of being "the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare". He fell ill with bronchitis during filming - the sort of adversity which is generally useful in travel films, being more interesting than the standard tourist sights. In this case it was vital, as there were no tourist sights (barring the odd labelled bomb hole and the unusual dubbing technique in the local cinema - three actors standing at the back and doing all the parts in different voices). To make up for this, McCarthy applied a little affectionate sarcasm to a nation of enviable placidity, talking of "the ruthless marketing techniques" (a man on a street corner with a megaphone) and the "clamour of the rush hour" (two men and a cycle rickshaw) and enjoying the sight of downtown Vientiane - a sea of palm-trees uninterrupted by high-rise brothel or firetrap nightclub. It may not last very long - across the Mekong lies Thailand, an Asian tiger waiting to swallow the culture in one big bite.

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