Television: You saw it all first in 'South Park'

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The Independent Culture
Here's a troubling coincidence. The state of Colorado, where last week's school massacre was conceived, is the same Colorado where the hit cartoon series South Park, about four dysfunctional, indeed downright weird schoolboys, was conceived. Moreover, South Park's staple mix of lunacy and bigotry - united in the name of satire and, to be fair, sometimes very funny - is set in a fictional town very close to the place where, on Tuesday, lunacy and bigotry produced carnage.

By a further coincidence, the co-creator of South Park, Trey Parker, was interviewed in the review section of Thursday's Independent about the forthcoming film version of the series. On the front of the same review was a trenchant article by David Aaronovitch about the Columbine High School killings, in which he asserted that "film-makers who allow violence to seem cool and attractive should examine their consciences". South Park's characters, incidentally, include Kenny, who dies in every episode, and an emaciated African child known as "Starvin Marvin". In the Independent interview, Parker, who met his co-writer Matt Stone at college in Colorado, declared that "Matt and I are real close to being crazy ourselves". I present these facts without comment. In one episode of South Park, a man watching a Jewish boy playing baseball remarked that "I haven't seen a Jew run that fast since 1939."

Interestingly enough, Jerry Springer - whose show is slated far more than South Park and considered guiltier than any other of overfeeding that voracious chap, the Lowest Common Denominator - is the son of German Jews who fled the Nazis in 1939. I'd love to know what Springer thinks of South Park. I know how he defends the appearance of neo-Nazis on his own show, because I have asked him. He says he would die in defence of the First Amendment, which enshrines freedom of speech for all Americans. He rubbishes the notion that he has given white supremacists and anti- Semites the oxygen of publicity, arguing the exact opposite, that their ranting and raving should be witnessed by as wide an audience as possible. Television exposure would have stopped Hitler much earlier than the Allies did, Springer reckons. He might have a point.

On Monday and Tuesday, Springer joined Judy Finnegan as co-presenter of This Morning (ITV). Far from lowering the tone of proceedings, he seemed a sight more composed than she was. Poor old Finnegan missed her cues and tripped over her words like a novice, saving her coup de grace for a live exchange with ITN's Mark Austin, who was reporting from a refugee camp in Albania.

Springer - a news anchor for years before he started taking an interest in transsexual love triangles, not to mention oblongs and dodecahedrons - asked Austin all the pertinent questions. Then it was Judy's turn. What did Austin think that Nato should do next, she asked. Gently, Austin pointed out that he was employed to present facts, not to offer opinions. And I was reminded of a certain Radio 4 current affairs presenter who once asked a reporter covering a murder trial, "So, Graham, do you think he's guilty?" He responded that perhaps the jury should be left to resolve that particular question.

In Correspondent: Sloba and Mira (BBC2), Phil Rees somehow managed to profile Slobodan Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic without being too judgmental about them. It was a powerful, admirably researched programme on a love affair which has had a greater impact on world politics than any since Maggie wooed Ronnie.

Sloba and Mira met at secondary school and soon became inseparable. Both of them carried a great deal of emotional baggage into the relationship. When Milosevic was seven, his uncle killed himself with a shotgun. A few years later, his father did the same. Then his mother hanged herself. If Judy Finnegan had popped up to ask Rees what should happen next in the Balkans, perhaps he would have expressed the hope that Milosevic might yet follow in the family footsteps.

As for Markovic, her mother fought during the Second World War with Tito's partisans, but then was captured by the Germans and, under torture, revealed strategic secrets. In due course, her own father - Markovic's grandfather - ordered her execution. Rees learned that Markovic is still haunted by this. Not that we need feel much sympathy for a woman widely thought to exercise an even more baleful influence over the Balkans than her husband. All the same, between the pair of them, there is clearly - as someone once said of Basil Fawlty - enough material for an entire psychiatric conference.

Speaking of Basil Fawlty, John Cleese tells an amusing story about the Los Angeles producer who bought the rights to make an American version of Fawlty Towers. Eventually, the producer emerged from a three-day meeting with network executives, and informed Cleese that they were all extremely enthusiastic about the project. "We've decided to make just one adjustment," he added. "We're gonna take the Basil character out."

And so to the vital missing ingredients of Just a Minute (BBC1), the intermittently witty Radio 4 panel game of hesitation, repetition and deviation, which has been adapted for television with only one adjustment - they've removed the intermittent wit. The BBC would have been better off adapting the Shipping Forecast for telly. At least we would have got to see some big waves. For nothing makes more pointless or depressing television than radio-with-pictures. And even on radio, there is not much worse than a panel game with feeble panellists. Wednesday's Just a Minute starred the song-and-dance man Gary Wilmot, cheerfully patronised by presenter Nicholas Parsons, who kept telling him he wasn't bad for a beginner. But Parsons must have been secretly tempted to dock the producer a couple of points. Gary Wilmot instead of Paul Merton, or even Clement Freud? If that's not deviation, I don't know what is.

The Naked Chef (BBC2) is a more successful form of deviation, for it is like no other cookery series I have seen, and like anyone who watches early evening television, I've seen a hell of a lot. Its brash 23-year- old star, Jamie Oliver, is not everyone's cup of tea, but he is the perfect antidote to the Two Fat Ladies. "It ends up being dead tasty and looking dead pukka," said Oliver of his home-made focaccia. Oliver sounds as if he was brought up above the Queen Vic, but there is something not quite convincing about his vowels, as if they were carefully un-refined at public school. Either way, he is an engaging lad, and plainly a talented cook. If he doesn't become the male Charlie Dimmock, I will eat my hat - after first marinating it in tarragon vinegar, of course.

Another Jamie, Jamie Draven, played Dex, a 17-year-old murder suspect in Paul Abbott's Butterfly Collectors (ITV), with Pete Postlethwaite as the disillusioned detective who becomes emotionally involved in the life of Dex and his family. For a psychological thriller, it seemed disproportionately heavy on psychology, light on thrills. And the score was soppy and intrusive, featuring that woman who has an obligatory part in every psychological thriller, the haunting soprano. But the performances of Draven and the incomparably lugubrious Postlethwaite, plus Abbott's clever script, made it well worth staying with, even though I worked out long before the end that the murderer was not Dex but his 10-year-old brother. It isn't only in real life that killers are getting younger.