Television review

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The Independent Culture
If you were looking at the cultural altimeter, Richard Allen's skinhead books for New English Library would be found somewhere well below sea-level. They weren't exactly the product of Flaubertian creative agonies; they were written in five or six days at a rate of some 10,000 words a day and their creator never looked back - it was a point of pride with him not to read more than two pages of the previous day's work before settling down to assault the typewriter anew. And yet his pot-boiler novels won readers in the most unlikely places, surprising even their publishers by the avidity with which they were bought and passed on.

"That was probably the first book I ever read at school without being bullied into it by a teacher," recalled one bullet-headed fan in Bookmark (BBC2). An English teacher rather poignantly recalled the transforming effect of using a passage from Skinhead in his class, a miracle of concentration his own passions had never managed to conjure. These crude, even cynical books took the literary virginity of thousands of reluctant readers. As you watched Ian MacMillan's intriguing, funny film, though, it began to cast an indirect light on the spell of fiction. These were readers so ideally naive that they had no idea whether the books were real or not. One fan was convinced that Richard Allen must have been a "fug" himself. "Even if he wasn't, he fort like one - in his 'ead," he added with a chuckle. He would have been disappointed by the truth. The creator of the fictional Joe Hawkins - the yob's paragon, the cynosure of bovver - was a 55 year old hack with a plaid cardigan and a pipe.

Other writers were even more detached from their subject matter. Sandra Shulman, a nicely spoken lady who had written Daughters of Satan, confessed to her limited knowledge of the vocabulary she had to deploy: "I wasn't frightfully sure what `shafting' meant at the time," she said cheerfully. There was a certain innocence about the publishers, too: about their desperate search to milk the franchise - other titles included Glam and Suedehead - and the faint errors of nuance in the packaging (Skinhead Girls carried the sweetly formal copy-line "The horrifying story of a bother girl"). The readers didn't notice, grateful simply for the depiction of a world they knew intimately between the covers of a book.

Macmillan's film could have lost five minutes without detriment (there were some slightly self-important passages of landscape that had you tapping your fingers) and it might have been more candid about the racial politics of the books, which were generally brushed aside as an aberration of history. But, in capturing that naive wonder at seeing the world written down which is at the heart of all literature, it caught a thing many more conventional films have missed.

In Wheeler on America (BBC2) Charles Wheeler concluded his account of recent American history with a look at the Reagan legacy. It seemed a little hastier than some earlier programmes, but it still conveyed his dry, detached mastery of recent political history. He is both modest enough to admit to his miscalculations ("Like most people I underestimated him," he says of Reagan's early appearances on the scene), grand enough to tick off the entire population of the United States: "Too often since then the American people have settled for presidents who were less than first rate," he says, as if they had all fallen behind in their homework. His assessment of Reagan was stern - of a charisma so dazzling it concealed the hollow. He was no easier on Clinton, memorably described as "a latter- day Lyndon Johnson - minus the mandate, the experience and the personality". But if he is disappointed with America, his detachment hasn't curdled into cynicism. The programme ended with an oddly moving testimony to the American dream, the patriotism of an alien: "If it were ever to open wide its borders, half the world would rush to become Americans." You could almost hear Reagan saying that.