Television: Secrets of the little box in the corner

Brian Viner on television
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Last Thursday, Radio 4's Today programme reported that the relationship between a couple in Russia has been screwed up by television. Before they got a telly, they were happy. Now they can't stand the sight of each other. He hangs around all day watching TV, and she keeps going absolutely ape about it, and the fact that they are orang-utans is, in a way, neither here nor there. The inference was that television can make families, whatever their breed or creed, hopelessly dysfunctional. After all, as the delinquent Bart Simpson said to Homer, "the TV has done more to raise me than you ever have."

Now consider another example of television's assault on domestic harmony, involving another famously animated pair, Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan. Their most recent major row, they admitted to the Independent last week, concerned what their children should be allowed to watch on the box. They didn't identify the bone of contention, and I have an irresistible image of Judy screaming, "I'm not having those kids slobbing around in front of daytime telly every sodding morning!" But whatever programme the row was about, the message is again clear. If television can drive a wedge between Richard and Judy, for God's sake, then what hope the rest of us?

Even in my own front room, normally a sanctuary of calm, there was a tense moment last week when I insisted on watching Mersey Blues rather than George Clooney, who was saving a baby by performing an emergency tracheotomy with an old paper-clip, or something similarly heroic, in an episode of ER unsurprisingly voted the viewers' all-time favourite. For purely professional reasons, I am Master of the Zapper in our house. And so my wife went Clooney-less, glancing up from her crossword only to mutter sulkily, "Haven't we seen this before?"

I knew what she meant. A few months ago, in ITV's Liverpool One, we saw Merseyside detectives blowing an expensive surveillance operation. On Wednesday, in Mersey Blues, same story exactly. The difference is that Liverpool One is drama and Mersey Blues documentary, but you would barely know it, for the lines between TV genres are becoming increasingly blurred. Jerky camerawork, over-excited music, in-yer-face editing, effing and blinding - it could be documentary, or drama, or comedy, or current affairs. Hell, these days it could be Postman Pat.

Programme-makers admit that they are blurring genres, but claim they are only doing so to satisfy audiences. In the first episode of the Casualty spin-off Holby City, for example, we saw the blood and gunge of a heart transplant that until quite recently would have been the strict preserve of# a post-watershed documentary. Today's viewers demand uncompromising realism, drama producers cry. But only, it seems, to a point. For as soon as they start casting the female parts, uncompromising realism goes abruptly on hold. The nurses of Holby City are all svelte beauties, while Daniela Nardini (Undercover Heart) and Samantha Janus (Liverpool One) have brought a new Nineties meaning to the old Dixon of Dock Green line, "It's a fair cop." And let's not even mention the fearless female detectives of NYPD Blue, every one a stunner.

If my wife had looked more closely, of course, she would have realised that the absence of anyone who looked remotely like Samantha Janus, indeed the scarcity of women in general, meant that Mersey Blues was fact, not fiction. The other giveaway was the sporadic commentary, supplied by This Life's Andrew Lincoln. Actors have cashed in handsomely on the budding relationship between drama and documentary.

Lincoln could have done with a better script, though. "Two years ago," he said, solemnly, "the Chief Constable of Merseyside declared war on organised criminal gangs, making vast profits from their sales of illegal drugs." I don't suppose that was meant to be open to misinterpretation, but it was, especially as the programme revealed that Merseyside's under- funded drug squad officers are frequently forced to do unpaid overtime. They even have a quaint term for it. It's known as working "for the Queen."

Anyway, the highlight of Mersey Blues - a slightly unsettling example of us watching them watching us - was a dawn raid, in which a woman was found to have pounds 12,200 in used notes in her airing cupboard. She was later charged with money-laundering, which seems to me like the germ of a Two Ronnies news item.

Speaking of surprise raids, a documentary called Blood on the Carpet told the story of Granada's corporate assault on Forte, famously launched while an unsuspecting Sir Rocco Forte was shooting grouse on the Yorkshire Moors - a neatly Anglicised version, for a man of Italian stock, of fiddling while Rome burns. Predictably, but quite effectively, the programme kept cutting between Sir Rocco and his Nemesis, Granada's chairman Gerry Robinson, looking spookily like Anthony Hopkins. Or spookily like Hannibal Lecter, as Sir Rocco doubtless sees it.

Blood on the Carpet, its very title a hint of melodramatic intent, rather simplistically presented Sir Rocco as the good guy and Robinson as the bad guy. Needless to say, the truth is much more complicated. For instance, some care was taken to portray Sir Rocco as the benevolent boss, at one point joining his staff for a casual aerobics lesson, yet I have it on impeccable authority that he could hardly have been more remote from the Forte minions and was not greatly mourned.

Still, when did television ever let the facts confuse a good yarn? And it was clearly irresistible to present Sir Rocco, whose father Lord Charles Forte was born near Monte Cassino, as well as his sister Olga Polizzi and their adviser Roberto Mendoza, as the embodiments of English decency and fair play. Which, it was inferred, is precisely why they fell victim to the skulduggery of Granada, run, incidentally, by an Irishman (Robinson) and a Scot,# Charles Allen.

As for another immigrant's son, and indeed another Granada, Michael Portillo was our guide in Great Railway Journeys, travelling from Granada in southern Spain to Salamanca, near Madrid, where his father Luis once taught and from where he was later exiled, having fought for the losing side in the Spanish Civil War. It was a fascinating and moving odyssey, and represented the latest step in Portillo's spectacular conversion from public enemy number one, whose electoral downfall caused such rejoicing, into admired broadcaster and decent bloke. A medium that can do that, and can at the same time cause marital friction between orang-utans, is, I reckon, a medium to be treated with great respect. And perhaps a little fear.