TELEVISION / Shock, horror, spoof, shame

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The Independent Culture
IN 1792, Jonathan Swift came up with A Modest Proposal to solve the Irish famine. Things were intolerable: God knows, you could hardly walk down the street without women and dirty children begging you for the price of a cup of tea. Surely it would be possible to take, say, 120,000 babies from homeless people, keep a quarter back for breeding and sell the rest to the rich for food? Swift had heard that 'a young healthy Child is most delicious whether Stewed, Roasted or Boiled'. Infant flesh would be 'very proper for Landlords who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the children'.

In 1993 when, God knows, you can hardly walk down the street without women and dirty children begging you for the price of a cup of tea, Channel 4 made its own modest proposal. Homeless people would compete on Come on Down and Out, a gameshow with a house as the prize. Everyone, including your critic, was appalled: what depths were they plumbing now? Swift to take offence at the idea of ritual humiliation, unlike Swift we were slow to see that the real offence lies elsewhere - in our fossilised indifference to the daily humiliation of thousands of fellow citizens who might be Game For a Life, if someone would help them enter.

Come on Down and Out was part of Channel 4's brave and moving Gimme Shelter, a fortnight of programmes exploring street life in the urban jungle and its dark interior - the 'temporary' bed-and-breakfast. Most traded in the kind of first-person experience which you need third-person detachment to watch - or a box of van-size tissues. The gameshow had the clear and admirable intention of pulling in punters who don't read the Guardian. A regular viewer of Celebrity Squares (ITV), that Bermuda Triangle of the human spirit, would have felt comfortable with the ritzy set, and the curdling bonhomie of presenter Andrew O'Connor and his assistant, the Lovely Annabel. But nobody could stay comfortable for long. Annabel introduced the contestants - Jimmy ('OK, he's of no fixed abode, but we found him on the streets]'), Nicole, a single mother living with her toddler in a hostel, and Roger the bankrupt builder. The questions should have made you ask yourself harder ones: life-expectancy of a homeless person? - 47 years. Biggest cause of death? Suicide: 'that's why we took the sharp objects out of your dressing-rooms,' chortled O'Connor.

The contestants got marks for building a cardboard shelter ('Here's one I lived in earlier'), and, in a savage You've Been Framed skit, a distraught Nicole found a social worker taking her baby into care. If this seemed preposterous, you only had to watch Cutting Edge's film on Westminster housing department whose procedures make Kafka look like A A Milne. By the time Come on Down was transmitted, viewers knew that it was a spoof and that the down-and-outs were actors, which was a pity: obscene times require obscene gestures. Channel 4 may have got cold feet, but not as cold as those of the eight-year-old twins we saw living in a squat in Our House where 'the lectricity keep goin' off'. Literally powerless, they need something to give the 5,000-volt jolt to the nation's moral lethargy that Cathy Come Home did in 1966. Some of its early scenes now look like a knitting-pattern picture, but the horror of a woman's inexorable downward spiral comes up fresh as a bruise.

In a week when Jonathan Aitken referred in Parliament to The Unpleasantness in Bosnia, we needed George Orwell. It was Orwell who alerted us to the cramp language suffers when blood is no longer getting to the moral reflex. Reporter Nick Danziger trod in his giant, unflinching footsteps in Down and Out in Paris and London, and found there's nothing new that is not old and stinking of urine. The film's power was to show how easy it is for People like Us to become people like Geoff. A well-spoken man from the motor trade, he now sleeps in a car, observing his situation with terrible clarity: 'I realise I am teetering on a precipice, which may be the start of a downslide in the quality of my life, and could lead to serious loss of self- respect.' Philip Larkin, a great poet now under attack from pygmies (see Terry Eagleton on C4's Without Walls - amazing how tall pygmies think they are these days), once wrote that a life can take a long time to climb clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never. An acute distillation of the problems of Rosie and Reggie which had been aggravated by other acute distillations that come in cans and have your pancreas for lunch. Danziger drew them out with exemplary sensitivity, showing how the sins of a brutal father and a transvestite husband had landed them in purgatory. For the first time I understood what for crying out loud means.

With Michael Angelis and Sue Johnston on lead vocals, and Carla Lane on script, Luv (BBC1) should be a many- splendoured thing. Since Butterflies, Lane has dealt us tart helpings from the apple pie of family life. No one has shown the baffled poignancy of parenthood better: I can still hear Wendy Craig and Geoffrey Palmer hissing Russselll to try to bring their golden retriever of a son to heel. But Lane's new sitcom won't cohere. There is Harold (Angelis) a sensitive flower who is big in plant-pots, and his frustrated wife Terese (Johnson) who is hoping to divorce Harold without telling him - he'll only take it the wrong way. Meanwhile, the children are proving a trial: Hannah lives with Antonio who is several gondolas short of a Cornetto, and Darwin presents a direct challenge to the idea that species evolve. Every breakfast, Harold finds fault with his boiled egg. This is what's called a running gag, or perhaps it should be runny. Anyway, this one doesn't run: it jogs on the spot and was hyperventilating after 10 minutes. The whole thing feels weighed down, as if the actors were negotiating the script in moon-boots. There was a glimpse of what might have been when we cut to a family meal where Harold sat with a gateau on his head. No one mentioned it, especially not Harold, who has his dignity to consider. It was the surreal thing.

If class is Britain's tragedy, properly handled it can also be its biggest joke. It rarely is, so Debbie Horsfield's The Riff Raff Element (BBC1, first of six), was a blissful surprise: setting up a clash between nobs and proles, she has so far refused to sneer at either. The cast is one to die laughing for: Celia Imrie, busy turning the gin sling into a weapon, while Nicholas Farrell's chinless Boyd gave a properly modest yet excitable account of his accession to the vice-presidency of the Clitheroe UFO society, that was out of this world.

Farrell also did fine work as Major Church in Lipstick on Your Collar (C4) where, like the rest of the great cast, he filled to bursting the two dimensions he had been allocated. Only Roy Hudd's Harold Atterbow perspiring malevolence and Louise Germaine's minxy Sylvia came off the page. The last episodes had a vitality and pace missing from the first four, although Giles Thomas's Private Francis continued to deliver his lines with a speed that suggested they were being relayed to him by a loud-hailer in Pontypridd. On last week's Opinions (C4) Potter rightly saw off critics who had lied about Lipstick's sexual violence. But it would have been good to hear him answer those who wonder what a naked woman is doing spoiling an otherwise inspired scene in which MPs jived to Blue Suede Shoes. You watch Potter with greater expectancy than any other playwright, but once again there was the sinking feeling that he was fumbling in the dark not for some elusive truth, but for a bra-hook forever out of reach.