TELEVISION / We will re-fight them in our living rooms

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The Independent Culture
IT WASN'T just a problem for John Major. D-Day was tricky for the networks too: combining, as it did, commemoration and grief with nostalgia and showbiz. They launched a massive invasion of the airwaves. There had to be casualties.

We'll Meet Again (BBC1) was one. Postponed on Monday night because of a technical hitch, it finally reached us on Thursday. By then the bombardment had been so intense that the interview format, where men in their seventies reminisced in front of photos of themselves in their twenties, had lost the element of surprise.

But We'll Meet Again offered gruesome nostalgia too. When Jeremy Irons gave us 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', memories flooded back of, oh, Brideshead Revisited. Where was the tune? His was the first nightingale to do a voiceover in Berkeley Square.

If you really wanted to know what D-Day was like, the most down-to-earth glimpses, ironically, came from a Hollywood director. In D-Day to Berlin (BBC2), George Stevens and his crew followed the Allied armies from the Normandy landings to the capture of Berlin. The result was constantly involving and unexpected: a soldier hitting a captured German officer over the head with his helmet, another hanging a hand-grenade on a Christmas tree for decoration. The stunned shots from Dachau - in colour, and with a home-movie feel - were some of the most affecting to have been shown.

Some things never change. In a lucid and brave Dispatches (C4), Catherine Bond, who has been covering Rwanda for four years, travelled through the country demonstrating that the massacres there have a grim logic: the Hutus are wiping out the Tutsi. Sometimes it's impossible to tell with war documentaries - as the shot flashes by - whether the bundle by the road is a stray suitcase or a corpse. This week, with the D-Day and Rwanda programmes, I've seen hundreds and hundreds of corpses on the screen.

Dispatches even showed two Rwandan women pleading for their lives. The captors discussed their future, then went ahead and killed them anyway. The camera filmed this, from a long way away, high up, and through some trees. Television has this weird, restless ability to show you something that exceeds anything you have ever seen. A second later it's showing you something else. Really, the screen should blank out for the rest of the evening.

A new series, Palin's Column (C4), has Michael Palin arriving on the Isle of Wight to write for the local paper. Our intrepid reporter, armed with notebook and library cuttings, hops on a bicycle in search of a scoop. For Palin, investigating a story about black magic means chatting to a man who owns a boat called Count Dracula. If niceness has an entertainment value of nil, this is worse: it's arch. Not since Peter Mayle went on a truffle hunt in Toujours Provence has the spirit of enquiry been so impoverished.

It was a pleasure to watch some decent reporting in Inside Story: Tabloid Truth (BBC1) which followed Birmingham's News Team as they went about their business. And their business, generally speaking, is none of their bloody business.

The Inside Story team hung in close, lapping up the bargaining with the tabloids, the door-stepping of the recently bereaved, and the creative cropping of photos. The programme didn't spoil it by moralising. It simply prodded the journalists with quiet, insistent questions.

A trainee photographer, Kirsty Wigglesworth, was sitting in a car doing surveillance on a house. She defended the activity by saying that the people she was spying on had committed adultery. Little did Moses realise, as he brought those tablets down the mountain, quite who he would have on his side. Kirsty was dedicated: she didn't dare leave the car; so, fittingly, she was going to have to relieve herself in a McDonald's carton.

The News Team clearly had the journalistic virtues of persistence and cunning. But journalism here means building up stories to fit a formula. What Inside Story was doing was the opposite: letting the details pile up, and real life speak for itself.

Channel 4 repeated Melvyn Bragg's Without Walls interview with Dennis Potter from April. The transcript has now been published by Faber, but really it's the video that should have been issued. Much of the power comes from the wit and warmth of Potter's voice, and from his eyes brimming with feeling. Television does talking heads best, and few heads ever talked with such eloquence.

Allison Pearson's television column and Sue Gaisford's radio column both return next week.

Pearson on Potter: Review, page 4.