TELEVISION / Unwilling, unpaid and pushed to the brink by Granny

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'THIS is a sweet 88-year-old lady who looked after her son. He was the sort of chap who lived on the periphery of society and she was his main carer. Unfortunately one day he strangled her.' That 'unfortunately' hangs stubbornly, almost comically, in the air as you look at her face. She didn't die, so she stares out at us from the slide: an explosion of veins, bright blue eyes set in blood where the whites should be. Then there is the man starved and frozen to death while his daughter and her husband used his pension to feed six dogs. Dispatches (C4) reported on the great unacknowledged British sport of Granny Bashing, and proved that a compelling human story will survive the brightest ideas a producer can throw at it.

A Dispatches survey found that three million old people are 'at risk'. Unlike children, they have no laws to protect them from their nearest and fearest. In a moving sequence, victims told their stories: we saw only their ancient mouths, a succession of drawstring purses. Voices were deepened and distorted, which was for protection, but unhappily made them sound like Lee Marvin. Equally unhappy was the decision to spell everything out for the Hard of Understanding. 'Verbal abuse: threats, intimidation, swearing.' No kidding. My favourite was 'Sexual abuse: unwanted sexual activity'.

But this is no joking matter: all the more reason to have confidence in the solemn testimonies of the gerontologists and their battered patients. It was an insult to them to jazz the piece up with footage of a marching band and a voiceover saying: 'Windsor Castle, a magnet for tourists from around the world, but Berkshire like the rest of Britain holds a dark secret.' When did you last hear a light secret? Audience abuse: patronising captions, irrelevant duck-pond footage, suspense music, witless script.

Too late the programme got around to the heart of the matter: Care in the Community and six million 'unpaid, untrained and sometimes unwilling volunteers'. Not one got to tell their story. You were left wondering how many kind people caring for an incontinent relative might not crack under the strain. Push comes to shove and shove comes to kick and granny comes to hospital.

By contrast, Tina Jenkins's report on paracetamol overdoses for Check Out 92 (C4) was a model of clarity and sensitivity. It managed to feel important and urgent without the aid of a thuddery-heart soundtrack. A lot of paracetamol will kill you, apparently, but not fast enough. You go agonisingly into that good night. Robert took 62 and lingered four days while his body turned the power off department by department. He was so swollen by the end he could only be identified by his tattoos. Pameton, a safe form of paracetamol, would give 20,000 suicidees a year a chance to reconsider, but the Department of Health says it's too dear to put on the prescription list. Treatment costs (pounds 2,000 a day for specialist intensive care) made a strong case for a review but not as powerful as the one made by a doctor: 'They (the overdosed) sit up in bed talking eloquently about what's happened, very remorseful about the fact they've upset mum and dad, that they're putting the doctors to a load of trouble and swearing they'll never do it again. They all die within about three days.'

Without Walls (C4) continued its spirited but dubious quest to drag great artists out of the closet. First Shakespeare and now Michelangelo. Next series: why Donne did it with dogs, Eliot did it with reservations and Emily Dickinson didn't do it at all, poor love. Playwright John Byrne, still walking a trifle stiffly himself after the straitjacket of his own Catholic childhood, contended that Michelangelo was simply mad about the boys which made things complicated with the Church. Evidence of the artist's sensual appreciation of the male body is available to everyone with eyes. But Byrne wanted Michelangelo's sexuality not just to have informed his work but to have been the whole point of it. Of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, he said: 'these images seem to speak of very private erotic yearnings'. When I first saw the painting I had this weird heterosexual idea that the beauty of Adam was something to do with the artist's extraordinary apprehension of God's love for the most marvellous element of his creation. There was a whiff of inverted sexism about this sour enterprise. Trying to slap a Gay Pride sticker on the part of the David where the Counter-Reformationists put a fig-leaf, it totally failed to comprehend the capaciousness of genius. Both the sacred and the profane can call Michelangelo their own; the monarchist and the revolutionary will find echoes of their theme in Shakespeare. What does it matter which side they batted for when they bowled the world over?

The South Bank Show (ITV) was as beguiling as it was infuriating, which suited its subject to a T. How much you liked it depended on how you feel about Peter O'Toole: Michelangelo and I could stare at him for hours. Noel Coward said if he'd been any prettier they'd have had to call it Florence of Arabia. Wisely, the actor declined to talk about his profession (invariably a luvvies snare), treating us instead to readings from his new memoir, Loitering With Intent, about a back-to-back Leeds childhood with a daddy who was a twinkling Playboy of the Western World and a mother who did 'spoken-song versions' of nursery rhymes. Spoken-song is just right for O'Toole's prose which he read mesmerisingly, tongue flicking across his lips like a juicy pink comma. On his father's gambling: 'dice, dogs, point-to-points, which raindrop would be the first to slide down to a line fixed with breath and fingers at the bottom of a railway carriage window'.

On the Nine O'Clock News (BBC1), Robin Oakley made a haughty, nervous debut as political editor. He kept his chin up - all three of it - in a biting wind before succumbing to a cold in this crucial week. The cameraman should do him a favour on his return and pull back a little so he looks less like a steamed pudding. John Sergeant stepped into the breach with such character and authority that you wondered why he had been denied the crown of King Cole.

On News at Ten (ITV), the Prime Minister turned up to put the nation right about that awkward little misunderstanding over the pit closures. He has never looked nerdier: the blow-dry fringe, the Joe 90 specs, the crossed leg revealing an acre of sock (grey), the spotty tie for that 'informal touch', the palms cupped in supplication as if Michael Brunson might offer him absolution. Not that he had anything to confess, mind. 'How, Prime Minister,' asked Brunson, Paxmaning nicely, 'can you possibly explain such an about-turn?' 'I think what people haven't realised is the development of what was actually meant from the start about the question of a moratorium. Nobody should ever have supposed that we had in mind a moratorium without an examination of what is to be done during the period of that moratorium. It would have been false without that and it would have been seen to be false without that. So, of course it is necessary to do that.' A simultaneous translation from the Latin.

How odd that Major, whose main virtue is being a plain man, should address his country in baroque mandarin-speak. The whole shameless performance brought to mind an Elton John song: 'It's sad, so sad, it's a sad sad situation/And it's getting more and more absurd . . . Sorry seems to be the hardest word.'