Television Review

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The Independent Culture
Last week, The Works (BBC2) told the story of a comeback concert - a film in which Peter Green, former member of Fleetwood Mac and famous acid casualty, cautiously returned to the stage to play some of his golden oldies. This week at Bournemouth, Government ministers are doing much the same thing, appearing in front of their most devoted fans to give the old favourites one more run through, each of them with a pack of bureaucratic session musicians. It was particularly intriguing to watch Peter Lilley the other day (backing group The Mandarins) since a few weeks ago The System had shown us his backstage rehearsal - running through those familiar riffs in his hotel room while Lord Archer fine- tuned the stagecraft.

Was it my imagination, though, or is the fan-club a bit sluggish this year? "Scroungers and layabouts" didn't seem to get the usual roar of approval, and at other points the star appeared to have lost his hard-won sense of rhythm entirely. The audience chortled politely as he attacked Harriet Harman ("a thought- free zone"), but they weren't there for the big finish. "At the next general election we're going to beat those cheats," he yelped, but the audience missed their cue. He started the next sentence, stopped as they belatedly began to applaud, faltered into motion again as they stopped to hear what he was saying. Fortunately, the large screen on which strange subliminal images are projected (did I really see a giant Bloody Mary during the NHS session?) wasn't in operation. The only appropriate image would have been a camel attempting to tap-dance.

The Works, incidentally, seems to be specialising in tales of cultural dread, beginning with Green's mutilation by the gods of rock stardom and continuing with Don Simpson's self-sacrifice on the alter of The Gross. This was a subject Simpson knew much about, in both senses - he first established himself as one of the most successful producers in Hollywood and then spent the proceeds on a lifestyle of dogged (and often doggy- style) debauchery. "The time that I spent around him was probably the most insane, wicked and destructive time of my life," said one contributor. And she was a hooker. Despite his pride at his own ability to "teeter on the precipice", Simpson eventually toppled, the fatal precipice in question being a toilet seat from which he collapsed, stunned by a cocktail of drugs. "I think it was a very sad end," said Tony Scott, who directed several of his films, "but it was a very fitting end."

Bernadette O'Brien's film presented this as a fairly straightforward morality tale, filmed partly in the lurid style of Simpson's own rapid- cut blockbusters. But it wasn't the familiar fable of innocence corrupted in Babylon. Simpson brought his demons with him from a fundamentalist Baptist upbringing in Alaska (sardonically summed up by O'Brien with a location shot of his old house, complete with a road sign reading "Dead End"). Hollywood simply gave him the means to entertain those demons with deadly lavishness.

Many informed voices were missing from this account, having gone down with discretionary laryngitis (O'Brien reportedly found most doors closed). But I also missed two who might have been available. Firstly, that of someone who could explain how a small-time boy from Alaska had such excellent contacts that he could walk straight into an interview with a major Hollywood studio (as this account implied). Secondly, that of Paul Schrader - a film-maker who turned a very similar background (strict Calvinism in Grand Rapids), and some similar demons, into durable art rather than transitory pulp. When Simpson was President of Worldwide Production at Paramount, he oversaw production of Schrader's American Gigolo, a film which considers exactly the themes explored here - the fear of emotional intimacy, obsessive physical vanity and the destructive pursuit of wealth. Schrader would have known exactly where Simpson was coming from, even if he couldn't say where he's gone to now.