TELEVISION : The joke of a very cruel butt

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NORMAN SPHINCTER was guest host of Takeover TV (C4). A bit spotty and pale, you couldn't help thinking, a bit lacking in personality. Rather a sedentary sort of performer is Norm, to be honest. Still, who'd be linkman for a programme that encourages camcorder owners to show what they're made of? "Tonight, two guys, two girls: we watch as they have sex! Man bangs nails into face - I'm not joking!" It was hard to tell. Norm doesn't run to smiles or smirks; even a coy Anne Robinson wink is way above him. Look, there's no kind way to say this: Norman Sphincter is a bottom. A man's bottom decorated with cardboard eyes and sat on top of a shirt and tie, a ventriloquist's dummy made flesh. In a very real sense, Norman Sphincter talks out of his arse.

But in so many voices! There are impressions of James Bond (bottom with bow tie), Mary Whitehouse (bottom with lipstick) and Loyd Grossman (bottom with julienne of carrots). After centuries leading the world in anal retentives, it was perhaps inevitable that England would produce its first anal expressive. Norm's fundament didn't really shock you for long. After five aghast minutes, you could see that the two pitted moons had a certain cheesy pathos: they made you think fondly of Pam Butcher's cleavage in EastEnders. This is bad news for Takeover TV, whose stated aim is to give people a voice and whose secret agenda is to give Middle England a coronary. Norm spent the gaps between items relishing the prospect of viewers' disgust - "I fought in two World Wars to stop this kind of filth!" In your critic's experience, any show that keeps telling you how dangerous it is invariably fires blanks. If Takeover genuinely believes that it's subversive to depict Sindy dolls simulating intercourse, the only risk it runs is of boring the pants off everyone.

Brought to you by the team that makes Manhattan Cable, the show attracts or, at least, selects - the same freaks and fanatics: life, but not as we know it. You watched as a glum youth called Toby videoed himself hammering a five-inch nail into his face. Not that Toby is just a mindless idiot; he is a philosopher, too. "They say it's just a pointless thing, but it has actually got a point to it." Evidently. The point had just skewered Toby's right nostril and was heading for his spinal column. It is not enough to make an exhibition of yourself, though; the true video auteur has Something To Say. For example, those of us who last week saw a blonde in rubber witch gear strip down to a magic smile and a broomstick were delighted to learn that she was not really using Channel 4 to audition for Playboy. No, this was a passionate protest against the Criminal Justice Bill.

Hidden amid the piss - and wind - artists (farts are very big), there is real freshness and talent. It was hard to resist Sergei Ivanov wringing existential angst out of shampooing his hair - a sort of Wash and Godot. And Gordon Hayden and Mike Jones's postage stamp-size thriller hingeing on a Polaroid exposure was spookier and more daring than most professional efforts. But Takeover is only accidentally a showcase for budding Tarantinos. In the main, it offers a vivid illustration of how low people will stoop to appear on TV. The benchmark here is "The Hopefuls", a slot on The Word that allowed screen wanna-bes to realise their dream at a price: gross self-abasement. I stopped watching the night a girl was required to retrieve an object hidden in a heap of offal - with her mouth.

Access TV is spreading like the Ebola virus. It's low on cost and high on democratic cred - unlike mainstream broadcasting, it doesn't require any special talent, merely that you be yourself. But anyone who has worked in the medium will tell you that spontaneity is the toughest thing to achieve. On Late Review (BBC2), gifted producers and researchers labour day and night so that your critic can go on and "be herself". The camcorder nut who believes all he has to do is express his personality is the butt of a cruel joke or, in Norm's case, the joke of a very cruel butt. Takeover TV is like all DIY - enormously rewarding for those banging in the nails, it leaves onlookers with the feeling it might have been better to pay someone who knew what they were doing.

"Pretty soon every aspect of television will be controlled by Joe Schmo," boasts Takeover TV. It is unlikely that Mr Schmo would have been able to make Lockerbie: The Maltese Double Cross (C4), let alone understand it. Only those with PhDs in Frederick Forsythe could hope to follow the fiendish twists and turns. The US DEA, or maybe it was the DIA, had been running a covert operation smuggling drugs out of the Lebanon to the US via Frankfurt airport. The operation was infiltrated and a bomb substituted in a suitcase that was put on Pan Am Flight 103. Clothes found in the wreckage at Lockerbie had been bought in the shop in Malta, but not by the Libyan with the Liquorice All-Sort name and the woeful Tony Hancock face. He was the chosen fall guy of the CIA, FBI, MI6, MI5 and almost certainly the M25. Presenting evidence that sounded like an Iranian translation of Finnegans Wake, writer and director Allan Frankovich unwisely opted for a portentous tone. Two years after the bombing, a vital fragment of microchip was conveniently found in a "forest where it is as dark as it must have been before time began with the first Big Bang". That dark, huh?

Before broadcast, Frankovich's documentary already stood accused of being compromised by Libyan funding. Certainly any programme which thanks "Tiny Rowlands" must expect to be met with suspicion. (Did the small one, perchance, think that Harrods hamper department was behind the bombing?) Even the largest pinch of salt, though, could not obscure the foul taste of official deeds revealed here. There were eight warnings before the bombing - but they never reached ordinary passengers like Jim Swire's daughter, Flora. The programme was followed by Lockerbie: The Debate. Oliver "Buck" Revell, the FBI man who headed the investigation, was confronted by Jim "Integrity" Swire. Jim wondered amiably how it was that Buck's son, who was booked to fly on the fatal Pan Am 103, had pulled out. Buck agreed this was a "tragic, ironic coincidence". By the end, you were right with the grieving mother who said: "I don't give a damn if Hitler funded this film, the questions it raises need to be answered."

Elsewhere, it was the week of dysfunctional domesticity. Family Therapy (BBC2) takes a riveting fly-on-the-wall look at Jack, Marion and their teenage daughters Rachel and Sara as they undergo counselling to help the friendless Sara. The therapist, an earnest son of Mitteleuropa, was straight out of central casting; the family held more surprises. The parents longed for their daughters to be safe and successful. With all this love in the air, the children could barely breathe. In one devastating cutaway, Jack's own mother cheerfully admitted that when her son didn't get the English prize at school she "kicked him all the way home". Everyone knows what Larkin said parents do to children; the next line has always struck me as infinitely sadder: "They may not mean to, but they do."

The father, conspicuous by his absence in Remember the Family (BBC2, Fine Cut), never meant any harm either, and then he lost his fruit and veg business. Everything rotted and fell apart. The wife lost her husband and her happiness, the three teenage children reeled in the blast. In Philippa Lowthorpe's remarkable documentary, you saw the aftershock still rippling across their faces. Between recollections, the screen would fade to black, as if paying its respects. The camera gazed from a distance, over the flat Lincolnshire fields, at the Georgian farmhouse that had been the family home - a child's drawing of what a home should be.

You presumed they still lived there, but gradually the fragments cohered: the family fate was a terrible mystery, and the film a supreme piece of emotional detective work. Finally, the camera entered the premises and found the evidence: empty rooms, fireplaces and fittings gouged out. It wasn't some vandal who had broken in, it was the father who had broken out - stripped the place bare and never come back.

Without any forcing, the film had a symbolic weight: it felt like an anthem for doomed middle-age - the cold wind that can tear through the warmest lives. "Remember, remember," chanted the angelic voices on the soundtrack. Not much chance of forgetting.