TELEVISION / The second draft of history

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The Independent Culture
THERE are few more reliable pleasures than a black-and-white film on the box of a dreary afternoon. I recently curled up for my sixth viewing of The Dam Busters. Everything was as I remembered: Michael Redgrave radiating decency in a pale cardie, the big weepy scene when Wing Commander Guy Gibson is told that his beloved black labrador has been killed: 'It's Nigger, Sir.' Not this time, though. This time Nigger had become 'Trigger, Sir'. A couple of things hit you right away. First, the crazy dissonance set up by Trigger - the name of Roy Rogers's horse. Second, the dissonance set up by the fact that a man who laid down his life fighting fascism was being censored by people who will probably never have to lay down anything more precious than Media Guardian.

To call your dog Nigger is literally thoughtless, even in an age of such notable faux pas as the invasion of Poland. But that thoughtlessness needs to be preserved as an authentic period detail, if only to show that it could co-exist with unarguable virtue. No amount of scrubbing - or dubbing - will clean up history. If you try, the result is a rank lie: All pleasant and politically correct, Sir.

I thought about Guy Gibson's dog again during Common as Muck (BBC1). William Ivory's new comedy- drama about Geordie binmen had a scene early on in which, just as the dustcart was pulling out of the depot, the supervisor's black labrador ran after it and the Dam Buster's march started up. Da da-da dum di- di dah dah . . . It was mock heroic here, but behind the mockery you sensed that Ivory believed we were in the presence of something almost heroic - the heroism of high spirits in the face of other men's garbage. Here was a writer - new to me - whose characters in all their mucky complexity would always call a spade a spade and probably kick the dog to boot. A writer with his wits on full beam and not afraid of the dark.

In the town hall sit the management. Sporting a navy blazer and pausing only to caress his squash trophy, George nurses the illusion that with the threat of privatisation hanging over them he will tame the binmen. 'These steps represent a bright new dawn for refuse collection]' John (Roy Hudd) knows different. Queasy in sage velour, he has the look of a man recently promoted from the ranks who understands that the men aren't on for niceties while the enemy is still dropping chip wrappers at every corner.

Out on the truck are Foxy, his Marty Feldman eyes popping out beneath a Biggles helmet with flaps as wayward as its owner. Edward Woodward plays Nev, who may be in charge although it's hard to tell. (Former twitchy ferret, Woodward has lately barrelled into a Russian doll; unscrew his middle and you feel sure the lean, mean Callan will be scowling inside.) Then there's Ken, the one with the big heart and the temper to match. Superbly played by Neil Dudgeon, Ken is already a finalist in the Yosser Hughes High Dudgeon Memorial Stakes.

The crew is joined by Sunil, a student who peers at these primitives like a mystified Mowgli. ITV's Moving Stories also had an Indian lad so we could observe removal's arcane rituals through wide, ingenue eyes. But Ivory's handling of the device is incomparably bolder. Sunil ('Two- nil') is mercilessly teased about his colour by Ken but, confusingly, it is Ken who has the black wife. Ivory bends over backwards to avoid whimsical ethnic stereotypes and occasionally lands on his head. When Sunil complains his legs are shagged, his middle-aged mother is surely unlikely to enquire whether that is shagged as in tired or recently completed sexual intercourse. One duff note in a matchless ensemble piece.

Common as Muck carries a lot of big ideas, but the rude, robust dialogue cracks on at such a pace that they never weigh it down. The men, we come to understand, are paid to collect rubbish, but they don't have to take crap from anyone. Consider also the deft shadings of tone. When Ken arrives home one afternoon to find a naked stranger getting stuck into the wife, the obvious thing would have been for him to lash out - instead he lashes in. The force of that blow propels him down the garden and over the railway line where he collapses on the grass till night falls to join him. It is early days to back George's prediction of a new dawn for refuse collection, but things look a lot brighter for TV drama.

Everything that is right with Muck is wrong with Chef] (BBC1). Overwritten and underfunny, the best thing about the first series was Claire Skinner's cheeping assistant. Without her, Lenny Henry's sitcom about a prima donna with an exhaustive, nay exhausting, line in invective is an unappetising prospect. With a wary eye on the mass audience, Chef] tries to have its posh grub and leave it: the dialogue is stuffed with matey references to 'geezers' which sit

uneasily alongside brioches stuffed with foie gras. 'Everywhere I look I see people hopelessly equipped to perform the task before them,' moans Henry. Well, he said it.

Faith (ITV) was a slickly-plotted, increasingly implausible two- parter about rotten politicians and the tabloid jackals who feed on them. With the Scott Inquiry having set such a daunting imaginative standard, Simon Burke's fiction could only limp along behind. Michael Gambon brought his customary crabby grandeur to the MP, but he had to contend with a preposterous outbreak of truthfulness half-way through. That fine, under-used actress Gemma Jones was under-used as the MP's wife; armed only with spurned-spouse cliches and a self- recharging glass of Scotch she nevertheless managed to suggest the authentic pallid soul of a woman who has knelt too long in a man's shadow.

In another Sunday newspaper last week, a television critic confided that TV critics don't watch the box like normal folk. No, they pick out a few programmes that promise comic - better still vitriolic - mileage and watch them at odd times of the day on video. Thus, he said, you end up viewing Panorama mid-morning. Readers of this column know that a real television critic would never watch Panorama at that time; they would be too engrossed in This Morning (ITV) with Richard and Judy. 'Well, it's been a bad summer for rock-star marriages,' sighed Richard, swapping his concerned happy face for his concerned sad one. A trio of female hacks was on hand to pore over Chris's menopausal runes. 'He's behaving like a man whose just discovered he's got a willie,' opined one. Richard nodded glumly.

Where possible, it is always better to watch TV in real-time. Seeing what everyone else sees when they see it helps you ask the right questions. Like why are BBC2 showing new import Murphy Brown at 6pm? (Probably because it's a weedy imitation of other US sitcoms and because Candice Bergen not only sounds like a frozen yogurt but acts like one.) Watching as much TV as the average viewer (about 24 hours a week) bestows perspective; whenever someone insists a show marks a new low in civilisation you smile to yourself: the next new low is always in production somewhere by Carlton. You are also properly grateful for a miracle of patient inquiry like The Hamar Trilogy (BBC2). There are other things videos won't show you; take the slow slaughter of the English language, currently being bled dry of meaning by news reporters. 'A Romeo today admitted two counts of bigamy,' announced a cheery ITV chappie, temporarily forgetting that Romeo was a youth so in love with one girl he did not wish to live without her. Nor would I have missed the moment in the Nine O'Clock News (BBC1) when an unexpected second blurt of the signature tune interrupted an item Michael Buerk was reading on John Major's two-tier Europe. Clearly, like the viewers at home, the music operative had lapsed into coma and slumped against the play button. Give that man a rise.

The news also showed the Prime Minister taking part in an upbeat torchlit procession under Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, an event that unhappily had a precise archive echo in the first part of The World at War (BBC2), the monumental 1973 series. Its opening sequence is as finely scripted as anything ever seen on television. The camera pans down the main street of a ruined French town: houses with their eyes put out and their mouths agape, saloon cars rusted to gingerbread. You think you can hear the wind howling, but it is only the bitter chill coming off the commentary: 'The day the soldiers came the people were gathered together. The men were taken into garages and barns. The women and children were led down this road. And they were driven into this church' . . . Cue Carl Davis's score - Mahler without bombast - and the opening credits: Laurence Olivier on vocals, our own Neal Ascherson on words. Then, economical with the truth meant finding a prose as skeletal and haunting as the dead.