Television review

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The Independent Culture
Gore Vidal's American Presidency (C4) has been a sustained cadenza on the theme "It Should Have Been Me". From the frisson of the title to the location for the lectures - the White House TV studio - the whole thing is driven by the sweet consolations of contempt. It has been enormously enjoyable. Gore has politics in his blood-line (both Al Gore and Jimmy Carter are cousins), and he once went on the stump himself - but success in politics eluded him. He had to accommodate himself to the sight of lesser men winning with democratic mediocrity what he could not gain by patrician wit. "I did sigh a bit when a cousin became President," he confessed at the beginning. "Of course, I lacked Jimmy's powerful vision and radiant charisma." This was vintage Vidal - bone dry on the palate, full of petillant erudition and aphorism, wine pressed from the most superior of sour grapes.

His account of the American Empire was a tale of fraud on a grand scale, the enlistment of high ideals for low purposes and the creeping advancement of the octopus Capital. Congress was a creature of corporate ownership, the Presidency itself a grand masquerade to cover the protection of property. And when he encountered a President who wouldn't fit easily into this cynical narrative, he did not linger. "They are unanimous in their hatred for me," said Roosevelt about organised money in last Saturday's FDR, "and I welcome their hatred". It was a superbly dismissive line, one that immediately brought Vidal's obsession with corporate conspiracy to mind. Perhaps that's why Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of the blander vignettes in his brisk chronology: Vidal's genius is for hatred, not admiration, his talents are most excited by the sort of characters who draw withering fire. He also has a connoisseur's eye for a barb, which means that reviewing the programmes almost gave me writer's cramp. When I wasn't scribbling down a sly irony ("Eisenhower read his speeches with a genuine sense of discovery," he said with foxy admiration, noting that Woodrow Wilson was the last American president to write his own public words), I was struggling to record one of the many borrowed darts with which he dotted his engrossing script: "We must never forget", the British Ambassador in Washington wrote solemnly of Teddy Roosevelt, "that the President is seven years old." And every now and then Vidal drops a weighty name, displaying his credentials for the hauteur of tone: his evidence for Kennedy's vanity made sure that you were aware that his was an intimate judgement - "'Who would ever have heard of Lincoln,' he once said to me, 'without the Civil War?'"

These animated slide-lectures can be difficult to bring off, television's fidgety concentration being essentially at odds with the simplicity of the thing, a man or woman talking. Here though, barring the occasional solecism of TV grammar (it is merely discomfiting to look at the profile of a man who is supposedly addressing you), Richard Curson Smith had come up with some well-crafted ways of breaking the visual monotony, from dramatic set dressing to fascinating clips of former Presidents off-guard, preparing for official broadcasts. None of that would have worked, though, without Gore at the heart of it: an orator of the old, the Roman school, employing every trick in the book to ensure that monotony never finds a foothold.

Stephen Poliakoff is noted as a Special Adviser to Frontiers (ITV). Stephen Poliakoff the respected playwright, that is. This is inexplicable, unless they have simply ignored his advice, because Frontiers is the apotheosis of the Angry Shouting Copper show, a mail-order catalogue for every exhausted cliche of the genre - from the lazily rotating extractor fan which casts such a gothic light, to the stand-up rows in gloomy corridors ("Screw up on my territory again, and I'll make sure you're not in charge of a whelk stall before I'm finished with you."). My special advice is not to watch it.

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