television review

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The Independent Culture
"There was a civil war between the Roundheads and the Vauxhalls," explained a schoolboy in Westminster Behind Closed Doors (BBC2), Tony Benn's avuncular ramble around the Palace of Westminster. Benn didn't correct this automotive view of history, but he did have a little nag later about shortcomings in the National Curriculum: "England was a republic for 10 years... though they don't make much of it in our schools," he grumbled, with typical reluctance to let a grievance go by unprodded. On Sunday, BBC2's The Wilderness Years had demonstrated the downside of Benn's blithe political innocence, but this was a sweeter vision of the man, a more benignly comic account of his hobbyist approach to life. I compared him to Mr Magoo yesterday, a myopic agent of catastrophe, but this warmer depiction suggested a different analogy - would he have become Lord Pooter if principle hadn't required him to dispense with his title?

The idea here was a home-movie for the House - Mr Benn touring the corridors of power with a camcorder, talking to the people who keep the place running and taking some liberties that probably wouldn't have been readily given (he filmed in the voting lobbies, for instance). Like his taped diaries, there is a flavour of Dickensian obsession to his main concerns, which suggests he isn't a million miles away from the old gentleman who comes into the Lobby everyday to write petitions to the Queen. Even when notionally off-duty like this, he carries a soapbox with him, ready to be mounted at the slightest provocation.

A mural of William the Conqueror prompts the observation that that "was the second attempt after Julius Caesar to get Britain into the European Union"; the Royal opening of Parliament, with all its attendant hoo-hah of genuflection, is not part of British pageantry but grating evidence that "democracy is still on sufferance"; he remains indignant with Edmund Burke, some 200 years after the event, for describing his electors as a "swinish multitude" and even the toilets remind him of the pernicious nature of the British class system. "There is an absolute hierarchy of lavatories in the House of Commons," he explained, presumably wistfully dreaming of the day when tea-ladies and Lords could evacuate in odoriferous equality. For the moment, he has to content himself with the post-flush solidarity of the sewage ejector works, a large assembly of Victorian tubing which recognises no rank. "That would have taken Mr Gladstone's excrement out of the House," he said, with a strange beam of satisfaction on his face - history and radical mischief coming together in the plumbing.

The Factory (C4) concluded with an episode which suggested that Paul Watson had had some difficulty stretching his portrait of a Liverpool gas-fire company to five episodes, with scenes and footage from the first episode turning up again in a slightly mystifying way. Steve Houghton, the paint-shop foreman, for example, appeared to repeat his complaints about management ignorance almost word for word. Perhaps it happened twice, though that wouldn't explain the reappearance of an unplugged telephone and an empty desk, last used to poignant effect after a manager had a heart attack. The effect was of nothing moving at all, which seemed unfair given the scale of the managing director's problems and the evidence, there if you looked hard, that he might actually be inching slowly forward.

Horizon (BBC2) was about geology - a subject which would usually be considered as televisually exciting as a box of rocks. They got round the problem by repeatedly showing extraordinary footage of a river of rock and boulders flowing like water, an occasional oasis in the stony ground of geological theory. Oddly enough, though, they saved the most dramatic moment for the final minutes - by which time less dedicated viewers would have switched off. It seems that Hawaii is cracking in two and if enough falls into the sea at one go (as is entirely conceivable), then the Pacific Rim will be a catastrophic washout, with consequences for the whole world. Interested now?

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