television review

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Scott and the Arms Antics (C4) was a surprisingly entertaining attempt to clarify the principal issues behind the Scott Report, currently being rubbished in an off-the-record briefing near you. Surprising because, starting at 10pm and running for two-and-a-quarter hours, it made large demands on your stamina. Surprising, too, because its format of sketches, parodies, interviews and re-enactments looked more like the resolution of a Channel 4 power struggle than a sensible editorial strategy.

In the event, though the elements were uneven, it presented an admirably crisp summary of the chronology, and an uncompromising dissection of the Government's current embarrassment. Indeed, at some points it was almost possible to feel a little sorry for those on the hook, blinking in the unaccustomed glare. In the warm, convivial illumination of mutual understanding, presumably none of these arrangements looked shabby. But, as every prospective house-buyer knows, you never inspect at night, when the cracks and scuffs fade from sight. With the curtains pulled back, and the unfor- giving daylight flooding in, ministers and civil servants found themselves trying to explain the ethical decor of government, the sort of interior to which estate-agents euphemistically refer as "lived-in". They had got used to it, but now sharp-eyed strangers were in the house, and wear and tear that had seemed almost cosy now looked unaccountably squalid.

Witness after witness struggled to convey the essential clarity of governmental double-speak. "I don't see why you can't have a rigorous implementation of a flexible interpretation," protested David Gore-Booth, up to his knees in the Government's shifting guidelines on arms sales to Iraq. Tristan Garel-Jones insisted that he believed the phrase "unquantifiable damage to security interests", used in one of the public immunity documents he signed, would be understood by the judge to mean unquantifiably large or unquantifiably small. "You mean minuscule?" asked Judge Scott, incredulously. Not the right sort of judge, this - indeed, just the sort of bloody-minded jobsworth who will refuse to let politicians slip out through the swing door of linguistic confusion.

The sketches weren't bad - particularly a deadly bookend imitation in which John Major enjoined you to ignore everything you were going to hear and had just heard. But the scripted material couldn't come close to the transcripted material - the detailed record of politicians slithering in a verbal slick of their own making. John Major's lines - "One of the charges at the time, of course, was that in some way - because I had been the Chancellor, because I had been Foreign Secretary, because I had been Prime Minister - that therefore I must have known what was going on" - hardly needed the additional comic spin they were given. "It's junk, isn't it?" asked Scott, cutting through one witness's emollient euphemisms. "As a basic principle," the latter conceded grudgingly "- but not necessarily total junk." It was a pay-off that might have come straight from one of John Fortune and John Bird's spoof interviews (though they were bafflingly absent, having been replaced by an inferior imitation).

With such realities, satirical invention is on the dole, and when it appeared here it was possible to wonder whether the manifest comic relish might not be misplaced, or might not even assist the Government's defensive strategy. The glee is understandable - politicians habituated to sliding away from the question, confident that there is no firm surface to which they can be pinned, suddenly find their backs up against the paperwork. But the best of Scott of the Arms Antics was forensic, not farcical: Paul Foot's factual account of the connecting door between the arms industry and Whitehall, the dogged judicial exposure of convenient amnesia, the revelation of the habitual contempt for public opinion that underlies all these dealings. All this is a pill that must not be sugared too much, in case we swallow it down and miss the uniquely nasty taste.