Television review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Many of the scenes in Beeban Kidron's film about the photographer Eve Arnold were filmed in a jerky slow-motion - not the kind which preserves the illusion of smooth movement but the kind that betrays it, reminding you that film is nothing more than 24 sequential photographs every second. It was a nice touch, suggesting a deference from one medium to another. The stuttering, flickering images looked like a failure of decisiveness rather than a technical advantage; photographs don't lack motion, these scenes said, film lacks stillness.

This gracious courtesy to the film's subject was characteristic of an Omnibus (BBC1) which turned out to be a loving act of homage rather than a detached critical profile. Kidron worked as Arnold's assistant for a time and has talked of her as a "second mother", so you learnt more things about character here than you did about photography. You learnt, for instance, about Arnold's courage - while she was working on a picture story about Malcolm X, the only white woman in a large and often hostile crowd, she took care to wear wool sweaters, knowing that she would return home to find her clothes polka-dotted with cigarette burns. "Wool only smouldered," she explained. You learnt about her generosity: "It was always her session, not mine," she said about Marilyn Monroe, generously ceding some of the credit for her luminous pictures of the star. And you learnt too about her moral clarity: she held out against heavy pressure to allow Joan Crawford final control on a story she did about the actress, but then protected her from her own vanity; Crawford had posed naked and the results were less than flattering. Arnold handed back the transparencies - "Something happens to flesh after fifty and it was cruel to do it," she said.

Of course, it could be argued that character is technique in the field of photo-journalism, a medium in which courage and delicacy of choice are pre-eminent. But you would still have been disappointed if you were seeking something more concrete about Arnold's contribution to the field in which she worked. The only critics here were New York passers-by confronted with a selection from Arnold's work, a device which effectively argued for its human accessibility (and for its ambiguity when seen without journalistic captions) but didn't deliver any very surprising opinions. It wasn't even possible to be sure whether the images you were looking at had been cropped or not, because although Kidron supplied a black frame for clips from a documentary Arnold had made, the rostrum-shot photographs filled the television screen. Those frustrations, though, were outweighed by the humility and tenderness of the film. It was, in the end, less the profile of an artist than that of a woman, one loved and properly honoured by the profiler.

"History is made in bed," said Steve Jones in In the Blood (BBC2), the first of a six-part series about our genetic history. That was the sound- bite line but the kicker came next: "Genes move across the world through sex," he continued, "and not within a wandering tribe of heroes." This truth is not always palatable. The Jewish geneticist, who discovered that Yemenite Jews, fiercely proud of their undiluted bloodline, actually share more genetic material with Arabs than most other Jews, delivered his findings in America and only in English, anxious that it didn't receive too much publicity back home.

The first episode was full of such quiet rebukes to ethnic pride, tracing the lineage of genes to overturn some ancient traditions and confirm others that might discomfit racial purists. The Lemba of Zimbabwe believe that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel, despite their dark skin and the distance of their exile from the promised land. It sounded like a comic invention, this, a kosher tribe in the heart of Africa but genetics confirms that, in the male line of descent at least, their origins can be traced back to a Semitic source. No man is an island, in other words, and no race either.

Comments