TELEVISION / Striking it rich with oil

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The Independent Culture
'ON a hot muggy day in May 1911,' said the voice-over, 'the Supreme Court Justices came to case 398.' The accent was English (Andrew Sachs, in fact) but the style was unmistakably American - that anal particularity with which the higher journalism waves its research credentials in your face. The case in question was to decide whether Standard Oil, one of America's biggest and richest companies, constituted a criminal monopoly and it had come to court in large part through the journalism of Ida Tarbell. The story of her dogged confrontation with the power of John D Rockefeller, Standard Oil's founder, formed the bulk of the first part of The Prize, BBC 2's new Sunday series on the oil industry, subtitled with nervous stridency 'The Epic Quest for Money, Oil and Power'.

The series of investigative articles Ida Tarbell wrote for McClure's Magazine might have seemed an odd angle from which to approach the transformation of the oil industry from the bottling of folk medicine ('snake oil' is a corruption of Seneca oil, from a site where the oil naturally oozed to the surface) to foundation of corporate capitalism. But it proved an inspired piece of obliquity, drawing a taut human thread through a wild variety of material - social history, technological advances, business ethics.

Ida was born to her subject: her father, Franklin Tarbell, had made a small fortune providing barrels and tanks for the first oil extractors (then supplying oil for household illumination only) and used it to set up a small oil company of his own. Like many other independent oil men, he went to the wall before the ferocious ambitions of John D Rockefeller, foolishly turning down the offer of Standard stock in favour of cash when he was bought out.

Rockefeller's methods were not exactly criminal ('As far as I know he didn't break any laws,' said his grandson David, in tones that suggested he was not over-eager to expand his knowledge in this field) but like other businessman behind him he discovered to his cost that the distinction between illegal and unacceptable may not come to much in the end. It was the public indignation aroused by Tarbell's accounts of his early business practices that led to the Supreme Court decision and the dismemberment of his company. This wasn't quite as fearsome as its sounds - Rockefeller doubled his fortune in the process and then set about spending huge quantities of it on philanthropic ventures, a hobby that went some way to offsetting his national reputation as a succubus of Mammon (he was represented in cartoons as an octopus and a vampire, among other less charitable things).

It was, in part, a story about the extinction of a clapboard, frontier entrepreneurship by the industrialised, strategic equivalent which was to inherit the next century, a change you could see before your eyes in the archive footage as the overgrown outhouses that were the first rigs gave way to steel towers and modern equipment. It was a testament to the narrative skill of this first episode that you didn't even notice that most of the pictures weren't moving. Crude it wasn't.

'I suppose we'll eventually prise one of Derek's secrets from him,' said Loyd Grossman in the final of Masterchef (BBC 1 Sun). Fat chance. Derek was being coy and, besides, the programme displays an infuriating indifference to the techniques of cooking and the knowledge of its participants. Instead we get giggly running jokes about the greed of the judges, a fearful drubbing of the short menu of synonyms for 'delicious' and pointless montages of talented cooks grinding pepper. Derek, who carved twee little fish out of beetroot and courgette to decorate his main course, won, which was apt for a programme that so conspicuously places style above content.

Other results: Sampras P beat Courier J in a match high on skill and low on sentimental involvement (who cared either way frankly) and Rantzen E finally lost her long tie-breaker with the BBC. Yentob's decisive overarm smash was wildly applauded by many spectators who had been forced by officials to remain in their seats for 21 years.

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