Television Review: Omnibus

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS NOVEL Misery, about a popular author whose "number one fan" imprisons him and cuts off his feet, Stephen King produced the best-known and scariest satire on the cult of the celebrity author. So it was ironic, and more than a little disappointing, to see him fall victim, in a different way, to the same cult in last night's Omnibus (BBC1).

"Stephen King - Shining in the Dark" contained some intriguing examples of the ways in which life and fiction spark off each other. In King's case, life imitated art chillingly when a Misery-style "demented fan" - the phrase used here - broke into his home, claiming that King had stolen the plots of all his novels from him, and threatened to blow up the house with a "bomb". In actual fact, the bomb was made out of pencil-erasers wired up with paper-clips, a device so well-attuned to King's profession that I can't help suspecting it had less to do with dementia than it was evidence of an over- developed sense of irony.

King's art has always imitated his life, though necessarily indirectly, since even an American upbringing will put you in touch with only a limited number of psychos, hauntings and demonically possessed cars. The roots of the horror in King's books are, it was suggested, always to be found in childhood. King's own upbringing was classically deprived: his father vanished when he was two years old, leaving his mother struggling to bring him up alone. And King related how the idea for The Shining came from a brief bout of murderous irritation with his own small son (he saw the story itself as quite positive: "If a father is raging at a child, at least that father is there").

King himself came out of the programme rather well - a little touchy about his reputation, but engagingly absorbed in his life outside writing, frank about some of the more sordid aspects of that life, and with a sharp turn of phrase: "Anybody who looks back on the years from 14 to 18 with any enjoyment, I don't trust those people. If you liked being a teenager, there's something really wrong with you." But David Stewart's film was a little too pussyfooting in its approach, opting for bland plugs from Tom Hanks (star of the latest King movie, The Green Mile) and friends from the world of publishing, rather than serious critical evaluation; so that you never had any clear idea of whether King's work really is as good as it's cracked up to be.

Some of the praise lavished here seemed faint enough to be damning, though that surely wasn't the intention. One chum talked of how "grounded" King's work is, citing his use of brand names - hardly an innovation. King himself found a much more powerful image of horror in the everyday when he talked about his alcoholic, druggie past; among the determinedly non- exotic substances he abused were cough mixture, mouthwash, aftershave and Anbesol (stuff you rub on your gums).

This wasn't a bad film, but it hinted at a much better one buried not far beneath the surface (and presumably poised to rise up and grab the viewer by the throat). Ultimately, in its deference to King's fame and importance, its reluctance to subject him to really thorough, thoughtful scrutiny, it cut off its own feet.