TELEVISION / The rising cost of non-cows

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The Independent Culture
EVERYONE knows that you wear your best frock to go on telly. Needless to say this basic piece of sartorial intelligence has not reached Oxford University. Its Professor of Modern History, Glasgow's own Stormin' Norman Stone, turned up on Opinions in a shirt last ironed by Danton's auntie. The shirt (olive) may not have gone with the blazer (boating), but at least it matched the face, which over years of squinting quizzically at a damn fool world has rumpled into little duvets of disbelief. Still, if the appearance was less than sharp, you could cut yourself on the thinking. A guest during Channel 4's Democracy week, Norman lost no time in explaining why we shouldn't vote in the European elections. 'It is,' he sniffed Jean Brodily, 'as if we were being invited to go shopping for vegetables in a still life.'

Little England has never had such great lines: there were the Germans ('They want to be good Europeans because it stops them being bad Germans'), and the Scandinavians ('They only unite around the principle of finding the goody-goody Swedes very irritating'). With a Scots burr still lodged in his throat, Norman dispensed bonny mots in a palatial college room, flanked by vast looking-glasses; at first these seemed mere decorative distractions - a reflection of television's gutless fear of the unadorned talking head. But as he led us through the corridors of EC lunacy, you saw the point: only through a Lewis Carroll mirror could you meet such grotesques as the Gatt kings: 'Not so long ago a cow cost more than a student. Nowadays, a non-cow costs even more.' Here was Malice in Wonderwhyland - why get into bed with the kind of clots who ban Italian condoms for being a millimetre too long?

Stone musters precedents like a killer QC. His evidence on an earlier stab at togetherness, the League of Nations, left Euro-idealists like me feeling guilty of innocence: 'On 1 September 1939, the League ignored Hitler's invasion of Poland because it was embarrassing . . . it moved instead to discuss the standardisation of level-crossings.' In places, he was badly produced - someone should have edited out lecture-theatre rhetoric like 'in this talk' - and the cutting was gratuitous. But he still made everything around him look mimsy. As long as Norman has the right to be wrong-headed, we have some protection against the bullshit of non-cows.

There is a school of thought, of which I am headmistress, that democracy is safe as long as Commander Snow continues to issue wizard dispatches from the bridge of Local Government Elections (BBC 1): 'David] Eccsstrawdinry situation. Yess] LibDems pipping Conservatives into third place for the first time. David]' This was a smartly

produced programme, miraculously contriving to return viewers to their own regions at key moments. Even Field Marshal Dimbleby got carried away, delivering himself of a once- in-a-lifetime observation: 'Enfield, a rather exciting turn of events.'

Marginally less exciting than Enfield was Folkestone, where the media was massing for The Opening of the Channel Tunnel (BBC 1). As launch pads go, it was more Tesco carpark than Cape Canaveral. For the big day, Good Morning with Anne and Nick (BBC 1) had secured a Frenchman incomprehensible in any language. 'And it's a warm welcome to Sacha Distel.' It wasn't. It was freezing, and the skies over Boulogne opened, threatening the baguette display. 'Arr, Neek,' said Sacha, reaching out a consoling hand to pat his host's sopping barnet, 'Rerhndrawrps kipe falleeng on ze 'aird.' Hell's bells, he wasn't going to sing, was he?

Outside Edge (ITV) ended in tears and a Volvo estate. You always knew that when Richard Harris's comedy came to the crunch it would change gear beautifully. Otherwise, for writing of that subtlety you have to go up the M1, where the comic muse appears to have parked in a lay-by somewhere outside Runcorn. First Debbie Horsfield's Riff Raff Element (see Review, page 26), now Tim Firth's Once Upon a Time in the North (BBC 1). Firth has already given us the brilliant, blithe All Quiet on the Preston Front. His long titles speak volumes about his method: proper stories with proper characters teased out over time. He doesn't really do one-liners, except the sort that grow shiny with overuse in the friction of family life. Take Len Tollit (Bernard Hill) dealing with his spiky teenager: ' 'Ello, someone doing English lit, are they? Listen, Virginia Woolf . . .' Len doesn't actually know who Virginia Woolf is, but he's not having any Bloomsbury groupie pulling a fast one on him.

Len has been made redundant and is setting up a cellphone business to the scorn of his kids - the splendidly named Siobhan and Sean - and wife Pat. Out back in the granny flat, Mr Bebbington (a deliciously ruminative Bryan Pringle) has outlived the eponymous granny who picked him up at a Last of the Summer Wine Weekend. Most directors have put Hill, who has the bobbing, beaky face of a narked budgie, to tragic use, but here he is given some light relief and visibly basks in it.

His laugh - shadowing the contours of Fred Flintstone's Yabadabadoo - could become a classic, as could Mr Bebbington's bulldog, Pablo, who prevents him having curtains on account of the sucking: 'Well, they're like that, bulldogs. Produce a lot of saliva. But very gentle.' Also gentle is Len's brother Morris (Bob Mason) in whose hairdo St Francis of Assisi meets Slade's Dave Hill. Preston Front fans will instantly recognise Morris as second-cousin of Lloydy, the great lummox. Like Shakespeare, Firth has grasped the uses of the holy fool - innocent fun and terrible pathos. Morris, who has sadly lost his loved one in an Abbey National relocation to Dumfries, could well be Cheshire's answer to Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Yep, he was adored once too.

Elsewhere, it turned out to be unofficial lesbian week. Beth of Brookside (C4) was about to tell her mum she was gay when a saucepan foamed over onto the stove: what with the David Koresh-alikes across the close, this is becoming a real pot- boiler. Camille Paglia gave us Lesbians Unclothed (C4). As ever, she was talking about one word of sense to the dozen. Who would have thought Jimmy Cagney would come back as a feminist intellectual? The most interesting part of the show mentioned Anne Lister, an 18th-century Halifax estate-owner, who kept intimate journals in code. One heartfelt witness described them as 'the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbianism'. The scrolls were dusted off and brought to startling life in A Marriage, the first episode of A Skirt Through History (BBC 2), Philippa Lowthorpe's six-part docu-drama series remembering forgotten women.

We started with clocks - a fob twirling on a ribbon, a mellow bonger on a mantelpiece, its shriller sis-

ter in the hall - and two young women kissing on the lips. It is 1816, the softly-spoken narrator tells us, and still 15 years before Greenwich Meantime regulates the clocks in England. Time is out of joint, then; and Lowthorpe uses that dislocation to dramatic advantage: her costumed actors play out their period roles against a contemporary setting. Once you get over the shock of the new - Cavaliers overtaking carriages, bonneted women gliding past W H Smith - it makes emotional sense too: anyone leading a secret life as Anne Lister was forced to do will always be outside their time. We learnt that in the year that Anne's lover, Marianna, took a husband of convenience, the House of Lords acquitted two women of sexual impropriety because 'the crime alleged has no existence'.

A Marriage was filmed with a concision that tightened the screws on the passions portrayed. Lister's love life was literally a closed book of pressed erotic blooms, and the camera caught it with lightning zooms into her face or molten forays into the dark, vulva-like folds of her dress. The remarkable Julia Ford played Lister with the gleeful sexuality of a Victorian Joe Lampton. The result was a political film in the best sense: it campaigned on behalf of the past while making it clear that the issues haven't gone away. It's worth noting that last year, BBC Bristol threw a ton of money at Locomotion, an epic survey of railways. Lowthorpe, on the other hand, appears to have been given her bus fare. We might conclude that the patriarchy thinks trains are more important than women. On the other hand, we could just get on with celebrating the achievement of a predominantly female team. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Lowthorpe has produced a beautiful baby.