TELEVISION / The Whitehall farce that will run and run: James Rampton on a weekend of The Cecil Parkinson Story, How They Built the Channel Tunnel, Black and Blue and A Word in your Era

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The Independent Culture
Probably the last thing David Mellor needed at the weekend was a television programme harping on about a Conservative Minister forced to resign after newspaper reports of marital infidelity. His only consolation can have been that this was The Cecil Parkinson Story (BBC2, Saturday), and not his own.

Like a Brian Rix Whitehall farce, Michael Cockerell's film revolved around trouser-dropping. Parkinson smiled as he recalled the prescient advice his sergeant gave him before his first night on the town during National Service: 'If you want it, you'll find it; if you find it, you'll get it; if you get it, you've had it.'

There were shafts of scepticism; were we really expected to take seriously a late-middle-aged Tory peer in outrageously jazzy bermuda shorts surfing to the accompaniment of the Beach Boys' 'Surfin' USA'? But, too often, Parkinson gave responses straight out of the Yes, Minister handbook on How Not to Answer the Question. And some subjects were clearly off-limits altogether (his child by Sara Keays was conspicuous by her absence). The most revealing parts came when the former Minister was subjected to a form of the trial by televison that Mrs Thatcher used to deplore. As he sat in front of a bank of screens watching, for the first time, Mrs Thatcher's tribute to him the day he resigned, the camera homed in on a normally controlled man whose nervous fingering of his chin said more about him than any of his words.

Parkinson apparently made his millions in underwater grouting, which played a large part in Equinox: How They Built the Channel Tunnel (Sunday, C4). Sandy Balfour's film opened with the 'Rawhide' music, raising hopes of a rousing look at the work of the underwater tunneller. But 4' 33', John Cage's silent piece, might have been more appropriate, because the programme was like its subject: boring.

Admittedly, the director had his work cut out for him. Endless shots of men in hard-hats drilling into marl might test the patience of even the most ardent members of the British Tunnelling Society. And when an engineer started explaining the Austrian Tunnelling Method - 'helping the rock to help itself' - late-comers might have thought they had stumbled across a Monty Python spoof. This Equinox just goes to proves the rule that when two or three engineers are gathered together, no one else shall have the faintest idea what they are talking about.

The plot of G F Newman's Black and Blue (Sunday, BBC1), was equally incomprehensible; you needed a doctorate in Conspiracy Theory (Police Racism Division) even to remain one step behind it. But its point was clear enough: there are not just a few rotten apples in the police force, the whole barrel is putrid.

The opening titles featured a gun flying through a window and a Molotov cocktail being lit. That was tame, however, compared with what followed: an apparently ceaseless blue tide of policemen in full riot-gear pouring out of armoured vans and laying into a faceless mass of 'Sambos' and 'Uncle Toms' with sledgehammers. Not since Raging Bull have so many noses been shattered in such loving close-up.

Newman has made his name as an angry middle-aged man with such polemical works. But at the end of Black and Blue this viewer felt rather like one of its victims of police violence: head- butted, punched in the testicles, bludgeoned to the floor and kicked many, many times when down by the strength of the writer's feelings.

A Word in your Era (Sunday, BBC2) was an altogether lighter affair; in fact, it had the atmosphere of the kind of jolly game nice families might have played after Christmas dinner in the days before television. John Wells (as Queen Victoria - it must have been a relief for him not to have to play Denis Thatcher, for once), Helen Lederer (as Enid Blyton) and Jim Sweeney (as Rasputin) got to play with the dressing-up box and made good use of the fact that the dead can't sue for libel.

But as the jokes about the Birmingham Six, Jimmy Hill and Texas Homecare spewed forth, you couldn't help feeling that this was merely an excuse to parade the same old faces in new guises. Can you contain your excitement at the prospect later in the series of the ubiquitous Tony Slattery playing Lassie?

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