Television Review

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The Independent Culture
Something spooky has turned up in the hitherto dependable expanses of the BBC2 schedules, an alien presence on a channel you might have assumed to be broadly dedicated to the exercise of reason. At first glance Secrets of the Paranormal looks like the most cynical kind of figure boosting, an invader from Planet Carlton. On a second glance you realise that even Carlton might disown a series in which editorial control has been surrendered to people so open-minded that bats have taken up residence.

There are some tiny mitigating factors. The programmes have a video diary look and come from the Community Programme Unit, so it might be argued that they simply represent a commitment to all elements of the varied audience - after all, the superstitious and the gullible pay their licence fees, too. And, to be fair to Jenny Randle, the presenter of the first programme, she had pursued her investigations with a passable simulation of scholarship - trawling through the Public Records Office to tally Ministry of Defence accounts with anecdotal recollections.

There the mitigation ends, because what followed demonstrated yet again how malleable the logic of UFO devotees can be - a sort of mental Plasticine out of which monsters are moulded. Government secrecy, for example, is never a simple matter of bureaucratic reflex, always evidence of a conspiracy. Randle talked of the MOD's "secret UFO files", a phrase redolent of denied knowledge. She could equally well have talked of "secret tea-bag procurement files" given the institution's instinct for secrecy, but it wouldn't mean there was anything interesting to uncover.

She also displayed the selective vision so familiar of the type. Investigating a story of unidentified objects spotted at the launch of a Blue Streak missile in Woomera, she found an official letter referring to the incident and a reply that confirmed the existence of the film. "There is nothing about any analysis of the film," she said excitedly. But if you actually read the letter she had shown you it was obvious that the image had both been analysed and explained. "It is clear that the object is nothing more than an internal camera reflection," it explained. "This is a well-known phenomenon among photographic specialists." So well known, indeed, that it had been used at the top of the programme to create a UFO effect.

But then conviction often brings with it an impairment of vision. We were later offered the sad spectacle of three grown people driving around the North Yorkshire moors, working themselves into a frenzy of delicious paranoia about a "top secret American base", an installation so determined to conceal its existence that it had sited itself just yards from a public highway. "They don't want anybody to be anywhere near here," whispered Randle as she drove past, video camera peeping thrillingly over the edge of the car door. In fact this footage did include an inexplicable object, clearly of non-human origin - a dense, black, fibrous substance that had cunningly taken up position on one of her colleagues' heads, where it was attempting to pass itself off as hair. I suspect that if asked about this the man in question would retreat behind a veil of secrecy - indisputable evidence, clearly, that there is more to this phenomenon than meets the eye.

If Secrets of the Paranormal suggested that the BBC had established a Care in the Community Unit, Undercover Britain (C4) reminded you that that wretched euphemism is no joke in reality. Fay MacNiece went undercover to find out what private residential care homes were like and her film offered a shocking demonstration of what an unregulated market can do to the vulnerable. In pursuit of ideology the Government has created a bonanza for the greedy and the unscrupulous, battery-farming the mentally ill for their benefit cash. It was an infinitely more dignified and honourable use of video cameras than the BBC's celebration of credulity.

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