TELEVISION / The ways of the jackal

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The Independent Culture
AT LAST, a breakthrough in wildlife photography: animals holding the cameras.

Victor Malafronte is a jackal with a Nikon. He hunts with the pack in New York, lying in wait to ambush his prey: outside premieres, outside galleries, outside the gentlemen's lavatory in the Waldorf Astoria. In Blast 'Em (True Stories, C4), we were at his pushy elbow: a limousine draws up, the door opens, Michael J Fox and his wife Tracy step out. The pack is frantic, baying for smiles: 'Michael, can we get a picture? Tracy] This way purlleeaze.' A bodyguard slips, and suddenly it's the charge of the light-meter brigade. Fox bolts, and Victor bids him his customary Oedipal farewell: 'Muddafuckinsonofabitch]'

If Ben Jonson were alive he'd put Victor Malafronte in a play. He has the face of the young Bruce Dern, all twitch and bone, and his name is an inspired contraction of his choleric humours - bad temper and affront. Victor is affronted by everything and everybody, while managing to keep himself a compunction-free zone ('I have no sympathy with someone who makes 20 or 30 million dollars a year, OK?'). Refusing to take the violation of his right to violate someone else's privacy lying down, Victor took it sitting down - in a 'stakeout situation' outside the Foxes' den: 'I'll ask for them to pose. If they don't I'm just gonna start shootin'.' A mug- shot with a vengeance. Off-camera, a voice wonders what gives Victor the right: 'I don't even think about that.' Then, remembering to be affronted: 'You're confusing me.'

Joseph Blasioli's compelling film wore you out like a thriller in a tumble-drier: the hand-held camera jolted along in a state of perpetual aggravation, coming up through the crush like a periscope, then hurtling after Victor down corridors as he tried to crash a De Niro tribute. It was dumb, but it was exciting, and for a moment, when Victor burst into the official picture session, it was possible to share his chagrin: 'Ray Liotta on his own] Who gives a shit about that?'

Blasioli didn't explicitly raise the ethical issues, he let them bob to the surface like corpses, and produced a scary critique of celebrity. A grinning man talked about getting the last picture of Garbo: we saw it - the startled, rheumy gaze, the raised stick. When she died a few days later, he felt like 'the luckiest guy in the world'. As Jack Nicholson was borne along by the pack, the film slowed right down in time with Faure's Pie Jesu: a feeding frenzy of devils backed by angels.

Victor was last seen upholding a fine old American tradition - stalking John Kennedy: 'He's a pleasant, soft-spoken guy, I just feel sorry I gotta shoot him.' John Kennedy Junior, that is, but it still gave you a nasty turn.

There were more trigger-happy Americans in Videos, Vigilantes, Voyeurism (C4). Egged on by 'true-story' TV shows, 14 million citizens now use camcorders to record fatal accidents, theft, police abuse. If things are a little slow, they can always film birthday parties: we saw cake candles flambe a toddler's face. Here is the wedge that 999 is the thin end of: a cop's camcorder recorded his own brutal murder, and his wife appeared on I Witness to talk viewers through the finer points; a hidden camera recorded a nanny battering her charge into a vegetable ('What good carrots, you little fart'); and an outraged Ohio citizen, happily named Randy, zoomed in on a 'trysting' couple. The man was married. Shortly after the footage appeared on A Current Affair he killed himself.

The film could barely hold this horror at arm's length: it felt like licking your finger and leafing through the National Enquirer. It couldn't decide where the evil lay, or indeed if it was an evil at all: we went from Big Brother watching us to little brothers acting as neighbourhood watchers. There was absurdity, too: a civil rights worker worried that under constant surveillance Americans would become 'stiff, wooden and self-conscious'. Surely, madam, there are worse things than turning into an Englishman? An old commercial for the first home- video camera said it all: 'Yes, you can own Creepy-Peepy]' No one could have guessed just how creepy the peepies would be.

Moving to peepies Down Under, I'm grateful to the reader who has pointed out that my relish for Sylvania Waters (BBC1) is hardly consistent with my K2 stance on prurience. To peek at the follies of others, however, is one thing; to leer at their suffering, and even rearrange it for greater effect, is quite another. The second episode of life in the Sydney suburb confirmed it to be the kind of show you wouldn't be seen dead watching. On the other hand, you'd kill anyone trying to stand between you and the set.

The work of Lynda La Plante has much the same effect on viewers. Prime Suspect, Widows, Civvies, and even the absurd Framed all exerted a fierce fairground attraction: the thumping soundtrack, the storylines whizzing round with the guarantee of a glittering pay-off. If you like your Agatha Christie with attitude, Seekers (ITV) did not disappoint.

La Plante is the Araldite queen of bonding. In Civvies, ex-Paras dissolved into a beefy embrace at the drop of a beret. In Widows, a group of women were thrown together after their spouses turned out to be partners in crime. And now, in violent contrast, Seekers has two women finding that they share a crooked husband. They certainly make an odd couple, these bigamees - Stella Hazard (Brenda Fricker), the first wife, is homespun out of Donegal tweed; Susie (Josette Simon) is black and beautiful, with experience as a detective - very handy for the computer-disk fraud and the pony- tailed henchman.

In the heat of adversity the women's mutual suspicion thaws and coalesces into respect, then love. Written down it sounds worse than routine, but it didn't look that way in the face of Brenda Fricker. Fricker has the gift of illuminating nonsense with intelligence, and she had plenty of opportunity here, what with bald men giving her shifty glances and saying: 'We never met, you never saw me.' Jousting with Simon, she caught every flicker of Stella's transformation from wounded housewife to gumshoe with a soul. At one point she even gave in to her feelings while listening to Matt Monro: hats off to any performer who can deliver the line 'I am menopausal, I am empty' during 'Softly As I Leave You'.

No hats, however, for the male characters: La Plante still has trouble animating both sexes in the one drama. Mike Hazard was an absurd hypotenuse to the painful triangle, being straight out of My First Book of East End Characters. Had two strong women really fallen for this third-rate Laurence Harvey? Give us a break, ducks.

The Importance of Being Ernie (BBC2) made a poignant Forty Minutes for anyone who's ever asked: what became of him what wrote the plays? The answer, as Eric Morecambe was wont to conclude, is Not A Lot.