TELEVISION / Struck dumb by little Genie

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The Independent Culture
SHE WAS born in Los Angeles, in a suburb called Arcadia. The name means paradise, but not for her: father saw to that. Deciding the baby was retarded, he kept her in a bare room: strapped in a potty chair, she was beaten for making a sound. In 1970, when her blind, wretched mother finally got her to a hospital, she looked like one of those gauzy fairies Victorians photographed at the bottom of the garden. Her skin was so thin you could trace her fear through it, and she walked wildly on spindle legs, making startled starfish with her hands. She was 13 years old. The psychologists couldn't believe their luck. 'She had,' one recalled, 'a quality that seemed to elicit rescue fantasies.' But who was rescuing whom? As Horizon (BBC2) showed, there was no shortage of fantasists eager for her to save their careers from obscurity. Even the name they gave her suggested she could make their wishes come true: Genie.

Researchers focused on Genie's language development (could a teenager learn to talk?), but the broader inquiry inevitably concerned the nature of what makes us human. Linda Garman's film was pretty anxious about that too. Cutting between the researchers cheerfully reminiscing about the experiments they carried out and jumpy black-and-white footage of Genie squawking at rows of picture cards, it made you ask yourself, just how human is a human who treats a damaged fellow creature as a specimen? The team squabbled over Genie: Dr David Rigler, took her home. She bloomed. We saw Rigler's wife helping her vent her anger by teaching her the phrase 'rough time': it would certainly come in handy when the family let her go four years later after the research money dried up.

Garman had extraordinary material - the beautiful, haunted Genie was herself haunting, and you couldn't get enough of the ghostly footage - but it was as if she were too mesmerised to push it to its full potential. Knotty moral ambiguities needed teasing out. When Dr James Kent, who tried to work out if Genie could form emotional attachments, recalled his excitement the day he left 'and her expression changed from happy to sad', you wanted to ask what he thought her expression would be the day they all left her - to the mercy of foster homes. A battered Genie was readmitted briefly to hospital in 1979, when the researchers filmed her for the last time. She had sunk back into silence. It was a devastating rebuke to her excitable Pygmalions.

In the week that a survey revealed that a third of Britons have supper in front of the TV, your critic started to view her job in a new light. Clearly, there must now be a warning system for programmes no one can stomach. It would, for instance, have been inadvisable to eat your Pot Noodle during Whicker's World: Aboard the Real Orient Express (ITV): choking and throwing up at the same time can be fatal.

Alan Whicker has always looked like a post-war conman - a cheeky chappie who got himself a blazer, a 'tache and a vat of Brylcream and oiled his way into the clubhouse - but memory also suggests a reporter of real spunk and spite. This was the man who never stumbled in virtuoso walk-and-talk sequences, and would weasel his way into top drawing-rooms only to gnaw away at scrag-end of dowager till he hit bone. In recent outings, the old dog has lost his bite: on Tuesday he completed the metamorphosis into poodle. He was joined on 'this stylish expedition across the frivolous frontiers of the new age of the train' by le tout Hello] - Koo Stark, the unsaintly Michaels of Kent - and the Prime Minister of Malaysia and his merry henchmen. 'Yes, the opening has a star-studded cast]' The spanking-new carriages, Alan reported solemnly, had been 'distressed to make them interesting'. Alas, no one had thought to extend this treatment to the passengers.

A farce, the trip was crying out for satire. But Whicker has crossed to the other side of the tracks. Even a mild jibe at a bubbly-quaffing Susannah York came out in apologetic circumlocution: 'Used you not to be slightly radical?' 'One of the reasons I'm on the train,' purred Susannah, 'is I'd love to see the railways in England have a rebirth.' Not from there you won't, darling.

This is clearly the end of the line for Whicker. The posh puff-puff's puffer, he blithely gestured towards a crush of simmering locals: 'No resentment shown by less fortunate Thai passengers in workaday trains]' A shrill sound could be heard here: the whistle was well and truly blown.

I have always been a bit vague about post-modernism: it seems to consist of humourless people in black telling you that everything you care about sucks. Jonathan Meades wears black, but he has a lively sense of the ridiculous, which must come in handy when he consults a mirror. This pudgy, critical gangster has just concluded Further Abroad (BBC2), a series of hymns to oddity: beer, golf, pigs. If nothing else, you will by now have grasped the term 'self-referential': where Whicker drops names Meades drops his own. He is in constant danger of plunging aphorism over elbow into the abyss between illusion and reality, and I took violent dislike to his chilly, superior ways in week one. (In retrospect, it was a mistake to start with Vertigo - too vaporous and insubstantial.) But, by the time we reached Belgium, we had both warmed up considerably: this was a miniature masterpiece, erudite and vigorous. There was the elderly couple obsessed with England - 'Tesco] What a place]' - and the penguin fanatic (a quack, presumably?) zipped in a suit like a pregnant zebra-crossing. Meades's method is democratic demotic: he breezes from hearses to horses to houses. He even reads his own subtitles. It made you laugh outrageously: even more outrageously it made you want to go to Belgium.

The best thing of its kind on air, Roseanne (C4) was back for a sixth series with its eponymous heroine still throwing her emotional weight around the Connor household. Roseanne was cutting up like a hacksaw because Darlene was about to fly the nest, and what's more the little bitch didn't want her mom to drive her to college. Roseanne's husband Dan (lovable, lugubrious John Goodman) put Darlene straight: 'The only way your mother can deal with pain is to spread it around.' Later, when mother and daughter were edgily bedded down for the night, Darlene asked why it was so hard to split up from someone if you've made love. 'All human bein's connect sex and love,' said Roseanne reasonably. ' 'Cept for men.'

Quoting ricocheting ripostes cannot do justice to what goes on here: the gags are not the usual protruding one-liners. These feel like the kind of things people would say. But the spontaneity is hard-won and hard-worked. The polished Roseanne should have as much life as a machine-tool, but it feels infinitely more real than its sloppy British counterparts. A show full of big people, it fights the comic flab.

In Food and Drink (BBC2), Jilly was sniffing California's Pinot Noir: 'Mm, a just revving-up, smouldering compost.' Compost? She shot us one of her special Psycho smiles: 'I'm not actually saying it's unpleasant.' Jilly would need tying down if she got a whiff of Rufus Sewell's just revving-up, smouldering Ladislaw ('I feel I need to use my body') in Middlemarch (BBC2). With the introductions over, the serial grows more pleasurable by the week. On Wednesday, the ether was fibrillating as Ladislaw and Dorothea (Juliet Aubrey) had a tender, tentative encounter. Sewell is bringing a lot more to Will than George Eliot did: his reaction to Dorothea's platonic kindness - half sob, half shout - plugged you straight into thwarted love. Casaubon has shrivelled away, so now we can boo the extortioner Raffles (John Savident, straight out of Hogarth with a pickled conk and cheesy teeth). Meanwhile, Douglas Hodge is registering every nuance of Lydgate's welling dismay. After Rosamond had miscarried and with the creditors closing, we saw him on a sofa. Not a capacious, let-your-feelings-out kind of sofa, one of those high-backed Empire numbers. He managed to collapse while remaining bolt upright: that's what I call period detail.

One of the more distressing things in Tango of Slaves (C4), Ilan Ziv's bold, baffled attempt to retrace his father's ghetto past, was the commissioning editor who was worried it would be 'just another Holocaust film'. For more of that dreary old genocide jag, he should take a look at BBC2's nightly reports from Sarajevo - a Street Under Siege.