Television review

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If you hadn't known that Maya Angelou had been mute as a child before Angelou on Burns (BBC2), you sure as sugar knew it afterward. Since she regained her power of speech, the poet has developed the slow-hand, basso delivery of the wonderful James Earl Jones, veteran of a thousand roles as judge and general. Jones, however, usually recites the work of a team of top dialoguists: Angelou, supposedly celebrating the 200th anniversary of the death of Scotland's greatest poet, was clearly self-scripted. And sadly, what came out of her mouth was almost unrelieved drivel.

Angelou displayed two great American character flaws: that of believing she understands other people's cultures better than they do themselves, and that of believing her own press. Americans tend to treat their people of letters as though each syllable from their lips is a pearl beyond price, and Angelou has bought in to that myth. And she seems to be on mission to ensure that there is plenty to go round. Nothing was said the short way when there was a long way to say it, no point went unlaboured, no pensee, however, trivial, unrepeated.

In the house where Rabbie spent his childhood, she drew parallels between herself and the Ayrshire laddie. It was, she said, "a small home. I know something about small homes... when I think about it now I bow my head. I know what it is like to come through a poor upbringing, for I had a poor upbringing. We didn't have the richest of fabrics to wear, just as Burns and his family were without those particular things...". Still, she saw the good side. "Out of the...what would seem to be the meanness of this little room, great dreams sprang." Seemed like a perfectly respectable but and ben to me.

Being generously endowed with Scottish blood, I am as prone as the next person to get teary to "Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doone". But despite liberal doses of Burns's work, this programme was near-unbearable. Angelou pulled faces at a gathering of Burnsians, read "The Slave's Lament" in a faux Scottish accent that curled the toes, and displayed considerable fuzziness about reality. "Scots Wha Hae", she claimed, was written "for William Wallace". About, maybe, but Wallace had been ripped apart some four-and-a-half centuries before Burns was born. She also claimed emotional kindred with the Scots, whose sufferings she compared to those of her own. If I were an African American, I'd get rather frothy about this. We may have got whupped at Culloden, driven off the land, forced to set up financial houses in Hong Kong and Canada and deprived of a fair share of North Sea Oil revenue, but it's hardly equivalent to slavery, is it? This was intellectual pretension at its highest-faluting. It'll get raves when they show it on PBS.

Short Stories: Firing Line (C4) provided stark contrast. This film seemed to have no pretensions at all, it merely followed the activities of the Combined Cadet Force of Alleyn's, the south London public school. Thirteen- year-old squaddies took orders from 16-year-old corporals. "What's it like changing into your army uniform?" asked the interviewer of pupil Steven Akibu. "It gives me a military buzz, it does," he replied.

This was fun. It didn't contribute much to the pool of human knowledge, but it passed the time pleasantly enough. Two Platoon, a group of 14-year- olds which included the previous year's Prize Cadet, Susan Brown, was a troubled one. "In one ear and out the other" was how they were described more than once. On a week's camp in the Easter holidays, where they brushed up against real soldiers in the form of the Cadet Training Team, this became transparent. Fired at on exercise, they dropped to their stomachs and shot back in the opposite direction. Someone forgot the rounds altogether on another exercise, and we were treated to the sight of half-a-dozen girls running up a country lane shouting "Bang! Bang!". Chief Cadet Michael Laws, in charge of training them, looked resigned. "They'd be all right in a war situation," he said, "as long as they weren't fighting."

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