Television review

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The Independent Culture
The visual cliche I would most like to see disappear from our screens is the use of a crash zoom to represent an explosion. It would be closely followed by any use of the camera to animate immobile objects. The idea that waggling the image from side to side will somehow convey turbulent action should have been abandoned long ago. The effect is as alarming and as realistic as an episode of Captain Pugwash.

Both techniques were employed in "Last Voyage of the Thistlegorm", Caroline Hawkins's film for Picture This (BBC2), along with overlapping flame effects and a few other breaches of televisual good taste. That the programme survived this assault was largely down to the muted, elegiac nature of its conclusion, a section of the film which made you feel slightly shifty about your impatience with the preceding 25 minutes. Out of 120,000 merchant seamen who served in the last war, you were told, 35,000 had died - a higher casualty rate than in any other service. So, thoughts that you had seen this sort of thing before (in particular on Monday, when Nautilus navigates the same crowded stretch of water) were finally rebuked. This account of the sinking of the Thistlegorm, a ship carrying equipment and ammunition to Suez, was to stand for other forgotten casualties.

You could argue, of course, that the last five minutes of a film is not the best time to secure the allegiance of your audience, but then "Last Voyage of the Thistlegorm" didn't show much evidence of structural subtlety. The account of the voyage, and the sinking of the ship at anchor, was accompanied from the opening frames by ghostly underwater images of the wreck, its lines thickened and deckled by coral, just as the faces of the survivors had fallen from the clean grace of their wartime snapshots. It would have been nice if there had been some sense of revelation in this looming sight - if the ship had been reconstructed by words and memories before reappearing, shockingly solid and cluttered with detail. Instead, the Thistlegorm was there from the very beginning, revivified by spot sound- effects and overlapped archive film, as if our imaginations might fail without assistance.

Agony Again (BBC1), a very belated sequel to the sitcom about an agony aunt, stands or falls on how you take to Maureen Lipman. A recognition of her comic talent doesn't necessarily resolve the issue, because that talent is such an unsettlingly conspicuous thing. Her performance last night, for example, included a whole variety-pack of set pieces - she does a distracted sub-vocal routine on the doorstep with the postman, imitates a Sloane charity girl on the phone, rewinds herself like a video. These are all fine in themselves, but they come across more like a demonstration of range than of character. The turns never quite sit flush with the functional timber of the role.

That said, Agony Again offers a fair amount of refreshment. For one thing, it can't be accused of settling for the weary familial patterns of conventional British sitcom - Jane is having an affair with a dishy black man who looks as if he's emerged from a socially-conscious knitwear catalogue, while her son is gay and her lodger is a depressive down and out, adopted in a sudden flush of compassion. For another, the script (by three hands apparently, which is more crowded than British convention but sparse by American standards) is quite good, even if it depends a little too much on the call-and-response bickering between Jane and her producer (career monster, spouting Estuary Franglais) or Jane and her mother (Jewish matriarch monster). I particularly enjoyed Jane's response to an invitation to play parlour games with her mother's friends. "Remember the time we played Monopoly", she says in aggrieved tones, "and you claimed to have found oil under Old Kent Road?"

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