TELEVISION / The dog days of summer

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The Independent Culture
WAS IT really wise to call it Superdogs (BBC1)? Consider the flyball round in the semi-final: Jake, Spot, Toffee and Tazz, East Anglia's hot team, were lined up against a quartet of Geordies - Rocky, Zaros, Nell and Henry. Commentator Peter Purves fancied the favourites ('absolute greased lightning in the quarter-final'), but your reviewer, recalling previous great Tyneside track performances, had hopes for the, er, underdogs. Admittedly, Brendan Foster never had to shimmy through a bunch of poles, catch a ball in his mouth and race back to the embrace of a woman in a cranberry tracksuit.

It was close in the opening seconds: Toffee had a sticky time at the ball-dispenser, but then so did Rocky: 'Oooh, made a bit of a hash of his collection there,' winced Peter. Over on the far side, the Anglians had suddenly acquired the sprung grace of gazelles. But nearer the camera was Henry. Henry the mongrel with the knobbly, papier mache head of Bill Sykes's mutt, and a wayward lower-half that looked as if it was determined to be reunited with its original breed. Halfway down the track, Henry thoughtfully picked up a dropped ball, then caused a crisis at the dispenser by attempting to put another in his mouth at the same time. 'And he's gone potty,' yelled Peter, 'trying to bring two back.' Henry pawed the second ball, he nudged it with his nose, he jumped on it. 'Doesn't really matter, Henry,' consoled Peter, 'East Anglia's won.' Above the crowd's gusting laughter, it was possible to pick out a shrill female voice: 'Henry, Henry get over . . . HENRY]' It was his owner, Judy the canine beautician.

Here was a novelty in the making: a disobedience trial. It was all the better for breaking its constraints so gleefully, like a Mastermind contestant with 26 passes and a sense of humour. The Retrieval round was worse. Surely it was a bad idea to ask them to fetch a pork chop? A black labrador ate his, polished off the boiled egg, then moseyed back with the toy hedgehog which he refused to surrender to the frantic Susan. 'On his worst behaviour,' laughed Peter, a man who forged his own iron-clad cheerfulness in the teeth of John Noakes.

Undeterred by the increasingly barking contestants, Peter and co- presenter Cheryl Baker, formerly of Bucks Fizz and still employed for her bubble and squeak, kept up their thrilling exchanges: 'Let's catch up with Peter and his favourite event, Gundogs]' 'Yes, Cheryl, you're quite right, I really love this event.' It was more than could be said for Duncan. A bleary, Sergeant Wilson of a spaniel, Duncan clearly thought the whole show was a bit iffy. He reluctantly consented to swim across a river, keeping his head way above the water like a dowager avoiding a bad smell. On reaching the bank, he lumbered away from the target. 'Moving at his own pace,' said Peter, whose mission to accentuate the positive was running into trouble: 'The crowd have a very good vantage point, they can see everything that's going on.' He paused. 'And there's not a lot going on from Duncan.'

Duncan, alas, will not be disgracing today's final. An event that should have Barbara Woodhouse yanking the choke-chain of every angel in Heaven.

Doggedness of a less appealing kind dominated World in Action (ITV) which examined the bitterly contending theories of how children should be taught to read. I had been here before. In a classroom in the early Eighties, I was helping Robert spell out a word when his teacher came over: 'We don't do that here,' she said. Rejecting phonics (words built up through sound), they expected kids to pick up

reading by exposure to 'real books'. That way they learnt '20 words a term'. Twenty words? Gracious, Robert would be able to read Great Expectations in, say, 900 years.

There is a lot more at stake here than intellectual amour propre: a quarter of 10-year-olds are bad readers. World in Action deftly dramatised the rival schools of thought by sending Martin, a pro- phonics psychologist, and Jeff, a 'real books' teaching lecturer, to rival schools. Jeff shuddered in a Suffolk classroom where gingham girls got their mouths round the alphabet (hideously repressive]), while Martin smiled politely as a belligerent teacher in a Manchester staff-room explained that 'children learn an awful lot more from each other'. 'So, why have schools?' he asked. 'Well, children bring in different experiences, skills, strategies.' None of my lot ever brought in a strategy. You were lucky to get a slow-worm.

It was good to see such an important programme in a prime slot but, at half-an-hour, it was far too short. You wanted to know more. Could the 'real books' brigade really carry the can for growing illiteracy? One thing was certain, the moppets seen chanting at a private school were acquiring the master-keys of language that would open doors for the rest of their lives: a freedom increasingly denied to working-class children in the name of free expression.

One working-class boy who mastered the alphabet and put it to great liberal ends has been compulsive viewing for a month of Sundays. The fourth and final Neil Kinnock: The Inside Story (ITV) charted the period after the toppling of Margaret Thatcher. It deprived the Labour leader of a major bete noire, and left him facing an altogether more dangerous opponent: a Major bete grise. Filmed in what appeared to be a beautiful college library, Kinnock smiled that well-exercised rueful smile: 'His single great quality was that he, John Major, was not Margaret Thatcher.' With an election just around the corner, it was a disaster. Still, as we had seen in earlier episodes, Kinnock was used to tough contests: for seven years he had captained and fought a side whose players mostly preferred to play left-wing, despite evidence that a trot into the centre might be handy for getting near the goal.

And, as Denis Healey told us, Kinnock knew that without a goal the game was meaningless. His achievement was to make scoring a possibility, and producer Edward Morgan brilliantly got this across, while still opening it up to sparky attacks. There were Comrades Skinner and Livingstone claiming Neil had betrayed the party's essential soul, and Obergruppenfuhrer Tebbit smirking that 'Mr Kinnock's principal achievement was to make sure the Conservatives won in '87 and '92'. But you only had to see old footage of Derek Hatton, the brazen chipmunk, to understand that Kinnock had taken on thuggery - and won.

The films looked ravishing - too much so, as if the need for packaging were still upon Kinnock - and four parts was pushing it. They should have cut the wistful burnt umber sunsets over Westminster: the story had enough pathos as it was. It was odd things that got to you: Bob Peck's cracked voice on the commentary conjuring the good copper in Edge of Darkness, the way Kinnock's ginger hair had drained to straw then mouse through the years as if his body understood the neutering process required to make this decent man look decent. And, finally, the cutting from Walworth Road to jubilant scenes at Tory Central Office. 'I went down to end it all,' Kinnock remembered. For the millions who preferred red to grey it also felt like a kind of end: a loss of hope, a loss of country even.

More Welshmen in The Choir, the Passion and the Song (C4). Every member of Flint male-voice choir is an ex-something: ex-miner, ex-fitter. Eddie Roberts remembered the carols they used to sing down the pit 'till the hairs on your neck stood up'. We saw them rehearsing, old men now, finding perhaps the only close harmony still available in a post-industrial landscape. Director Neil Davies pulled off a rare thing in documentaries: the simple expression of heartfelt things. I hope Neil Kinnock was watching them raise the chapel roof, and the ceilings of their lives: 'Glory, glory hallelujah/Glory, glory hallelujah'. His truth goes stumbling on.

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