Television / With nobs on

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The Independent Culture
'IT'S the shock of recognition that people should see in my work.' Who said that? Olivier? Nijinsky? Picasso? No, it was Michael Caine, explaining that if we liked his movie performances, it was because we recognised how we too might have reacted in the same situation. Even leaving aside the unlikelihood of your ever finding yourself in the middle of an art heist with Shirley MacLaine, this still seemed a difficult argument to run. Confronted by a movie with Caine in it, most people perform an act of recognition, though it hardly shocks them to do so. 'That's Michael Caine,' they say.

It's frequently been alleged that Caine plays the same role, over and over. And it's a good role, so this has rarely been meant as a complaint. Hollywood Greats (C 4) took on what some would claim was the mountainous task of pointing out how much more there was to him. This involved taking us back to the early movies, when it was still practically impossible for Caine to use his natural cockney accent, and when he would crop up in military dramas with an up-turned coal scuttle on his head, addressing people as 'old boy'. These clips certainly forced a different act of recognition. 'That's Michael Caine,' you thought, 'pretending to be a nob.'

The programme seemed impressed by the transition, but then again it was hard to expect critical angles from a profile which faded up music beneath the voices of its contributors. Caine's recollections of his father came underscored with a misty-eyed duet for piano and clarinet, of a type more regularly heard in sentimental nature programmes about squirrels. He was a working-class lad whose success inspired a generation. 'If 'e can do it,' thought Bob Hoskins, 'ah can do it.' And he hadn't left those roots behind. From his apartment in Chelsea Harbour, Caine said he could still look across to the Elephant and Castle where he was born. The camera joined him up there, and focused in on some blocks of flats over the river which were, in fact, in Battersea, approximately three miles away. Still, poverty is poverty.

On The Works, BBC 1's new engineering design show, the inventor of the latest kind of ring-pull top spoke to us about the precise thinking behind his fold and tear- back motion. 'The lever action puts a shear across the score. It ensures you don't pour the contents over your neighbour.' The device is clearly a work of genius, unless you happen to be on board a Football Special heading out of Euston, in which case, it is merely the meddling of a spoilsport.

The screen was perpetually busy with pieces of tin-related trivia - '4,000 cans are opened every second' - conveyed in suspiciously large subtitles, like blackboard writing at primary school. It is possible we would have learnt a lot more, a lot faster, had someone simply addressed us from a script. Odd that a programme about streamlined engineering should be so inefficient as a conductor of information. When the subtitles laboriously pointed out that you can't test explosives 'because to test them is to use them', it was time to activate the punch action on the off-button.

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