TELEVISION / Sterling work as the Beeb scents blood

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The Independent Culture
AND WHEN they were up they were up / And when they were down they were down / And when they were only halfway up they drove Norm out of town . . . Poetic licence, alas, as far as Mr Lamont is concerned, but the BBC did the next best thing, devoting a blistering Nine O'Clock News to Wednesday's Whitehall farce. 'The Government stopped trying to defend sterling tonight,' said Michael Buerk in a voice that might have been telling us a mother had abandoned her child on the M1. Over on News at Ten (ITV), a bald, excitable Basildon Man was exultant after a day on the foreign exchange fruit machines: 'You can never finish when it's like this, it's crazy] What we done was a tactic around the room; we sold heavily against all the ERM bands and it worked.' 'How many pounds have you sold?' 'About half a billion.' 'Half a billion?' 'Yeah, excellent. Made a lotta money.' 'What are we talking about, pounds 200,000?' 'Nah, 'bout pounds 10m.' Behind him, a tiny Union Jack was jammed between the fizzing terminals. It hadn't stopped him selling England by the pound.

At 8.19pm, Liverpool in Europe (BBC1) was halted by a newsflash. Few things on television can rival the excitement of 'We interrupt this programme . . .' A shush descends on the nation's living-rooms. I thought it might be the Queen Mother gone, but it was the other national treasure, haemorrhaging into the software. 'The pound has been suspended from the ERM,' said Buerk. We had to wait nearly an hour for the main news, as our lads skittled the Cypriots. It was worth it. What followed was exemplary, riveting journalism.

A lucid graphic charted the day's ups and downs with a little clock that blinked as if it could hardly believe its eye. Cut to the Prime Minister addressing a dinner on 'the soft option, the deflationary option' just days before he had to eat his words. In the studio Michael Buerk looked like the safest pair of hands we had left, wrestling slippery Tory Party chairman Sir Norman Fowler into a revealing incoherence: 'Well, we joined (the ERM). No. But in the circumstances, in which we are, we joined for stability. But in the unstable circumstances that we are, the only alternative would be to push interest rates up.' A risible performance, even in the unstable circumstances that he is. Then over to Peter Jay, who got off his high horse for the occasion he called 'the most dramatic U-turn in British economic history for 25 years'. For the first time in this viewer's memory, Jay addressed the camera as if it were a person not a mirror in which he could admire his immaculate perceptions. By the time he finished a brutal outline of the Government's 'two deeply unappetising options', you wondered why they didn't put him in a car round to Downing Street straight away.

Any credibility the Government had left was buried on Newsnight (BBC2). Public flogging may have been abolished, but we still have Jeremy Paxman. He was on top form: that thoroughbred snort under the steel- wool mane. With Sir Norman busy wriggling elsewhere, it was left to Tim Smith, the Tory vice- chairman, to state the Government's position. If only he could work out what it was. A daddylonglegs in worsted, Mr Smith looked worried, and that was before Paxman started on him. 'How do you justify to the British public the spending of billions of pounds of foreign reserves to prop up an unsustainable exchange rate?' 'Actually, I think there were great gains to be made . . . actually, and still could be, actually.' Paxman kept Mr Actually by his side for the rest of the show, pausing occasionally to cuff him.

In Newsnight's Surviving the Crisis debate, a splendidly splenetic small businessman called Phil was unleashed on a Treasury Tufton. 'Do your government realise what you do to the ordinary business in the street? If any of yous come and run my business it would go bankrupt.' There was no arguing with that. But the last word belonged to Peter Jay: 'To increase interest rates twice and then to reduce them again and then finally to abandon the very policy for which this was done - all in one day.' If there was any cause for celebration on Wednesday this was it: to see the BBC climbing out of the Government's pocket, shinning up the old school tie, and finding the jugular.

There was no better escape from the week's gloom than Martyn Hesford's enchanting A Little Bit of Lippy (Screenplay, BBC2). 'Once Upon a Time in the North,' it said, and what followed was by Alan Bennett out of the Wizard of Oz: a fairytale of plain-speakin' Yorkshire folk 'avin a spot of bother with a transvestite in the family. Marian (Alison Swann), worried that her young marriage is flagging, prepares a black stocking and steak supper surprise for hubby Rick (Danny Cunningham). But the surprise is on her when she finds him preening at their bedroom mirror in black rubber corset and patent heels. Back at the parental home Alma and Reggie (the superb Rachel Davies and Kenneth Cranham) wonder whether she's been giving It to him regular before seeking vengeance. The film's perfection was forged in its details: the Bird's trifle on the table, Great Auntie Annie in her Barbara Cartland eyelashes, Reggie's toupee which he always put on to have sex. Hesford has a terrific eye and ear, but it was the fantasy sequences that raised his play above a nowt-so-queer-as-folk romp. Twin boys in heels totter in slow motion round a vast deserted church, wearing Mam's petticoats over grey school jerseys, lipstick smeared on like jam. Playing at ladies. Plaster fragments shimmy from the ceiling, making the world a giant snow-shaker toy. The music is icicle strings. The final scenes went over the top, but only because the film was aiming so high: big ideas about the imaginative escape of sex, not just one particular kink. It had the courage of its magic.

Angela Carter would have liked it. A pretty lippy lady herself (she once said 'A day without an argument is like an egg without salt'), she wrote novels that tried to build another storey in suburban minds: a loft extension to see the stars. She believed in the realm of the imagination, which was unfashionable, and always found women more interesting than men, which was asking for it. She was dying of lung cancer when Omnibus (BBC1) made Angela Carter's Curious Room, a magnificent film about her life. In reconstructions of her Tooting childhood, a solemn small girl with plaits went all moony in the art deco cinema: 'The film stock was old and scratched as if the desolating passage of time were made visible in the rain upon the screen.' Carter's way with words, always remarkable, suddenly seemed rare and precious, as a miner's wheeze gave her sentences a terrible, unnatural punctuation. Illness had made a proud, haughty bird-face puffy and soft. But there was no yielding in mental toughness. Shakespeare got a going-over ('probably very lovable, but not terribly clever'). As did reviewers who pointed out that she had 'missed some of the sublimity (awfully plummy here). But what do you expect? I'm only a girl. Obviously I'm going to miss out on the sublimity, aren't I?' Written down it looks whining, but in person it was mischievous and combative. I've always loved Carter's essays - humane, cussed, curious - but struggled with the fiction. Omnibus made me want to try again; the best reaction it could hope to provoke.

Question Time (BBC1) started a new term with a full complement of boys. That time of the month for the other half of the population, I presume. The new set looks like a saloon bar from the time when chaps used to motor down to the boozer in the Humber, while the Missus got the joint in the oven. Alexandra Henderson edits this show: whatever her excuse is, it isn't good enough.