Television Review: Stonehenge: Secrets of the Stones

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The Independent Culture
VIEWERS CAN usually expect a certain level of intellectual rigour from a documentary on Channel 4 and, in that regard, Stonehenge: Secrets of the Stones was confusing. Until the final credits rolled, that is. Then it emerged that it was a Yorkshire Television production for the Discovery Channel.

A generation ago, Yorkshire produced Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World and it was clear from Stonehenge's production values and exotic pseudo- scientific claims that what we had here was a direct descendant. The faintest hint of echo on the Geraldine James voiceover aligned with some new-age sound effects consisting of wind chimes, muffled cymbals and swirling synthesiser chords.

The film's main advocate was a physicist by the name of Terence Meaden, a man with a simplistic, sex-obsessed analysis of the stone circles of the south-west of England. There is no physical evidence to back up his theory that an Earth goddess cult existed in ancient Britain, but, in spite of this, his views formed the basis of a film which was a muddled monument to blind assertion. At Stonehenge on midsummer morning, a phallic shadow is cast from the "Heel" stone; this penetrates to the centre of the monument where its tip touches the allegedly sacred "Goddess" stone.

"The first arch is wider than all the others; this is the vulva of the monument," Meaden argued unconvincingly. "Inside we reach the first pair of stones which are..." (there followed a suitably pregnant pause while Meaden glanced into the lens for reassurance) "...regardable as the cervix stones, and inside this we have the uterus". One could sympathise with the poor cameraman as a horrible mismatch emerged between what Meaden was talking about and what the cameraman thought he was meant to be pointing his camera at. The compromise was a vague sweep across the rubble as he half-heartedly cast about for anything vaguely uterine. The shot lingered in comic confusion on a pile of old stones. I didn't see a uterus among them, but, then again, I suppose I wasn't looking for one.

Here was a man wandering deliriously in an empirical desert, and the wrap-up line was typical of the film's confused approach. It vacillated between the notion of a single truth and a rag-bag collection of subjective interpretations. "A sacred place whose meaning shifts with each generation... enigmatic and beautiful, Stonehenge guards its secrets." What was going on here? The first half of the sentence seemed to advocate a relativist view - which was prudent in light of the fruitcake theories which had preceded it - but the second half drifted into objectification suggesting that there were, indeed, "secrets" to discover.

After a full hour of this, one could imagine ghosts of gods past haranguing the director for his unsubstantiated allegations: "I want you to listen to me, I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that stone circle." Which brings me to The Clinton Complex (BBC2), a condition which one contributor defined as the notion of morality as a function of proximity. In other words, if a bad thing happens at a distance, perhaps it isn't so bad after all. Writer-director Mark Lawson made a witty and insightful case to explain the inexplicable: why Bill Clinton is more popular than ever after unzipping his flies in the Oval Office.

At times, like his subject, Lawson couldn't help himself. He canvassed the American mid-west's opinion through the corny device of visiting a town called Clinton, Missouri, a Newsnightian trick as stale and time- honoured as political corruption itself. This is a quibble, however, a faint stain on an impressively undressy analysis, the high point of which was a brilliant deconstruction of Clinton's appeal to black voters, 90 per cent of whom voted for him at the last election. "While Clinton has been accused of most things," Lawson drawled, "he is probably the only US president not to be accused of racism."

He is evidently at ease in an Afro-American context, as the footage of him performing in a baptist church showed. He had the congregation in the palm of his hand thanks to a combination of self-ease, natural charm and his slippery preacher's syncopation. A combination which, up until now, has got him into and out of trouble in equal measure.