Television review

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The Independent Culture
In 10 years, time we may find out exactly what took place in yesterday's Beef War Cabinet, the colourful truth behind the bland noises of arriving ministers ("Lots of work to do") and the formal communiques offered to the mob. But my own secret source (code-name Horseradish) informs me that all the principals are already working on their anecdotes, recording details of footwear, weather, mood and alimentary intake ("Douglas Hogg was clearly pretty agitated - I recall that he ate an unusual number of custard creams that morning") in the sure knowledge that a documentary maker will one day call them to account.

It is, as The Poisoned Chalice (BBC2) continues to prove, important to get the details right. They serve as a validation of your memory and the motive for contributors (as opposed to television producers) is presumably to ensure that their own recollection prevails. It is a very belated form of spin-doctoring - a way of ensuring that the historical record will look kindly on your actions. Indeed, they even put spin on the spin: last night Sir Ian Gilmour recalled one of his own PR coups with manifest pleasure.

Returning from all-night negotiations after the Luxembourg summit in 1980, with a deal good enough to warrant an early morning bottle of champagne on the flight back, he and Lord Carrington walked straight into a Chequers handbagging. "We were welcomed with enormous hostility," Gilmour recalled urbanely - they had not fought the British corner, they were told, but had shamefully bent the knee. After mutual threats of resignation Gilmour came up with the neat ploy of presenting the agreement to the press as a Thatcherite triumph, a gesture which seemingly transformed national sell-out into robust diplomacy in the course of a single weekend.

Explaining her problems with Europe, Mrs Thatcher added another dimension to the simple taxonomy of wet and dry which we had previously assumed governed her moral universe. Now texture comes into play as well as moisture content: "They were all so smooth," she said, sucking at her teeth with disdain. "I like some bony bits in personality, some prickly bits." This struck you as being memorably self-deceiving, even in a series which is a connoisseurs collection of selective recall - she had no obvious appetite for the prickly bits of Chancellor Kohl or the boney bits of President Mitterrand.

Indeed, The Poisoned Chalice suggested that it was the hedgehog fornication which took place at Mrs Thatcher's first European summit in Dublin which prejudiced her for good against the perfidious continentals. Despite that pointed encounter, Mrs Thatcher continued to beat the European drum for electoral reasons, deploring Labour's fading commitment: "They're running out on Europe," she trumpeted at one rally and behind her you could just glimpse the fuzzy features of Edward Heath, for once not contorted into a moue of disgust. For some reason I enjoyed watching this sequence so much that I had to play it back several times.

From then on, it was a tale of serial humiliation and growing disenchantment - Mrs Thatcher's domestic brand of bullying repeatedly failing against more subtle and indifferent opponents. By the time of the Milan summit (at which Mrs Thatcher fell into yet another procedural elephant trap) relations appeared to be so bad that the conference table had a large moat down the middle. It was filled with water-lilies, it's true, but even so it reminded you of the channels designed to separate large predators from visitors in a zoo. Signor Craxi was clearly taking no chances. It would have been nice to have seen Sir Charles Powell pressed a little more closely at this point - if Thatcher and Howe were left with egg on their face because the British had simply misread the rules they might reasonably have turned to him for an explanation. But The Poisoned Chalice is not a cross-examination - it is a fascinating and revealing collage of pleas in mitigation.

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