TELEVISION / Shamed by premature incarceration

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The Independent Culture
IN A Secret Life of Sex (BBC2), Edna Higginbottom recalled being certified in 1938 for making love twice with a man called Harry. Her grandfather shopped her to the police. Under Form of Defect, they wrote 'feebleminded'. She was 15 when she went into the asylum, 36 when she came out. The Good Sex Guide (ITV) had a cartoon couple showing how to deal with premature ejaculation. Come on girls, don't be shy] Pinch the penis between thumb and forefinger and squeeeze. Fifty years ago they locked you up for doing it, now they give you lessons in how to make it last for ever.

Wrongful imprisonment came up again in First Tuesday's Out of Sight, Out of Mind (ITV). It told the story of John, Jimmy, Frances, Ethel and Geoffrey who, like an estimated 40,000 others, were snatched from life for being orphaned, awkward, or just plain deaf, and consigned to institutions where even if you weren't mad, it didn't pay to say so. A sort of Five Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the film had no Hollywood frosting to make it palatable; no japing Jack Nicholson, no sentimental kinship, no triumph of the human spirit in the rough embrace of a straitjacket. Frances, now a gappily beaming 65, recalled how the nurses would tie patients to scalding radiators; she would free them, and get hit for her pains. We cut from a full-colour present, with the survivors in tiny flats cheeping with budgies, to a monochrome prowl through derelict Victorian wards, a row of baths glinting like molars in the gloom. The film was so bleak it sleeted a silent-movie fuzz.

An irritating thunk-clunk, reminiscent of Windy Miller, did for the soundtrack: it turned out to be the mechanism of one asylum's vast clock, marking out stolen time. Jimmy lost 50 years. We saw him now, defiantly neat in navy suit and tie. Some are born mad, some achieve madness and some, like Jimmy, have a gag put in their mouths and electricity jumped into their brain, until they concede that yes, OK, they are mad. His soft Scottish voice described the treatment as an archive clip showed a woman out of Edvard Munch juddering uncontrollably in her candy-striped pyjamas. The testimonies were unforgettable; not so the 'expert' interviews, a standard feature of documentaries about working- class experience, where middle- class producers assume that you only get the real low-down from a high-up. 'Institutions strip away people's individuality,' one official said. How much more eloquently we learnt that from Jimmy, who still refers to himself in the third person ('And, of course, Jimmy had to get it too, didn't he?'), as if he might never find the first again.

John McGrath's The Long Roads (BBC2) didn't have many laughs either. But the tale of an elderly Skye couple, who travel to the mainland to tell their children that the mother is dying, did hit a farcicalnote. It emerged that the five offspring had all obligingly joined different socio-economic groups so that McGrath could fire his 'sick soul of Britain' points at an open goal. You could just about wear the Merseyside policeman son busting crack dealers, and the daughter who'd gone on the game to feed her family, but the technocrat in Peterborough with a Rottweiler (new-town alienation) and the Knightsbridge hostess (rich people are loveless) were two stereotypes too far. It was a measure of Tristram Powell's restrained direction and the exquisite performances of Robert Urquhart and Edith MacArthur, that this play cut free of its soapbox and walked into your heart.

The Mushroom Picker (BBC2, first of three) belied its Jane Grigson title, and served up a full- blooded comedy of East-West differences, with a side-order of cannibalism. Margot, the Bollinger bolshevik (Lesley Manville), takes her mousey friend Clea (Lynsey Baxter) to Moscow, where she cooks up a plot with erstwhile lover Kostya (Nigel Terry) for him to marry Clea and gain a British visa. Kostya is 'the man with the meat' which he puts about a bit to the satisfaction of the ravenous ladies. Food metaphors were congealing all over the place - something about big appetites equalling big souls and the English being mimsy eaters who know nar-sing about par-shon - but sensible viewers will have ignored them and relished the acting. Manville has Miranda Richardson's dangerous charm; you can quite believe in Margot's glee at spinning her wicked webs. Terry's Kostya was by Chekhov out of Fungus the Bogeyman, which was forgivable given some of his daft lines ('I am Rorshar in the stow- mach, zet eess my trogedy'). And Baxter, in a hilarious display of culture shock, looked like Bambi after too much Babycham. As she tried to get to grips with a giant gherkin, her pale, tremulous being collapsed into a giant lisp. Director Andy Wilson has made a strange, luscious film, hungry for colour and texture, whether inspecting a bilberry-coloured bruise or panning slowly up Clea's stomach as Kostya licks cinnamon from her navel.

It's only a matter of time before they try this on Food and Drink (BBC2). The show has never matched the biting intelligence of Radio 4's Food Programme, but what it lacks in gravitas it makes up for in frivitas. Egon Ronay was on the roof of Manchester airport, trying to eat a hotdog which looked like a freeze-dried dachsund. 'I vill zacrifice myzelf for ze viewers,' he said, before spitting it out. But Egon's eccentricities are small beer compared to the Oz and Jilly wine encounter.

Oz is an endearing, burly curly fellow; Jilly is Jayne Torvill with her finger stuck in an electric socket: that ice-skater smile, the do-buck-up-Angela heartiness, the way she pronounces Calais like Prince Charles pronounces Hello] Over the years, Oz has raised his level of battiness to the point where he and Jilly almost meet in a headlong, ecstatic duet: 'Ahh] That thrilling kind of fresh smell] It's grapefruits and nectarines and elderflowers] Mmmm. Mmmm. Fruit] Fruit] Fruit,' says Oz, karate-chopping the table. 'I can hear the acidity]' says Jilly, barely pausing to glug before seizing a glass of England's cheapest: 'Lovely Body Shop aromas]' Before you can say Peppermint Foot Lotion, Oz is in with: 'Smell that] God. Mint, eucalyptus. It's got nice sort of plummy, blackcurranty fruit, but overall there's this wonderful . . . It's absolutely delicious] It's very unusual] It's a smasher]' You wouldn't want to be there when someone breaks the extraordinary news that it's made out of grapes.

As I write, word has just come through that Tip Tipping, a stuntman, has been killed trying to reconstruct a near-fatal parachuting accident for BBC 1's 999. Given this taste-the-fear breed of true story, here was an irony waiting to happen. Only 999 would celebrate one man being restored to life by sending another to risk his own for our creepy gratification.

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