Television review

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The Independent Culture
If I Were Prime Minister (C4) was one of the funniest programmes I've seen for weeks, but it took some time to work out whether Germaine Greer, the presenter, got the joke or not. With anyone else the diagnosis would have required no second opinion: completely barking, you would have concluded. Here's this wire-haired old sheila in a boiler suit suggesting that it would be a good idea to brand malefactors and sterilise every male over 18. But Greer is too sharp not to be given the benefit of the doubt, even if her opinions grow increasingly wild and rampant with the passing years. I finally settled for something along these lines: she had quickly realised that the format is ineffective for serious discussions but provides an excellent vehicle for polemical fantasies. Then, as she elaborated her daydreams, she began to convince herself that she was right.

This is as it should be. Utopian satire needs to be plausible in its inventions if it is going to make us think about the present. Swift's A Modest Proposal, for example, depends on the fact that its ingenious union of baby-surplus and food-deficit does make a sort of sense, not that it obviously doesn't. It wouldn't be nearly so funny or so troubling if it didn't seduce its readers into thinking "Well, you can see that it might work". Similarly, Greer's poker-faced suggestion that violent criminals have their heads daubed with red dye (actually a compromise on her initial suggestion that they be branded), a punishment that turns them into their own warning beacons, had an insane sort of allure to it.

In the full flood of enthusiasm, she even seemed to think this might have a rehabilitative effect - Ben Jonson was burned on the hand for an act of violence, she pointed out, and he turned into a well-respected poet. It took an ex-con to point out the practical difficulties of her scheme. "It's information - it helps people understand how to deal with such people," said Germaine, pleading her case to him. "I think he'd get lynched," replied John, whose grasp of the deal such people would get was a bit more realistic than Germaine's fantasy of restrained ostracism.

She also seemed to have some form of eugenic control in mind (this was one of the places where you had the feeling that secretly she really meant it). "More in sorrow than in anger, I promulgate that we will take a copious sample of male seminal material at maturity... and then we will vasectomise all our male citizens, which would be appropriate if they continue to be irresponsible with what they do with this protein." Men, if they accumulated enough social brownie points to qualify for paternity, would then be granted the right to defrost their obligatory deposits in the national sperm bank.

She would also abolish the benefit system ("degrading"), pay women to have children, and improve the education system so that "every school in England would be an Eton", though she didn't explain how this was to be funded. Various expert witnesses sat blinking as she explained her ideas, hopelessly inadequate sandbags trying to prevent this great balloon of ebullient ego from floating off into the stratosphere.

And then, in the very closing seconds, Greer proved that she knew exactly what the joke was after all. As Rameau played on the soundtrack and as Greer toured the domestic utopia of greenhouses and vegetable plots which she has established on her own farm (she is very well placed to enjoy the downsizing pov-erty which she proposes to extend to the entire country), she conceded the real scope of her ambition. "I suppose I don't really want to be a prime minister," she said. "I think I probably want to be emp- ress, dowager empress." Well, life wouldn't be dull, even for all those male eunuchs.

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