The Critcs - Television: It makes you sad to be English
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 02 May 1999
It still seems like some grotesque joke, which would have been compounded by the spectacle of Nick Ross appealing on Crimewatch for help in catching the killer of his erstwhile co-presenter. Sensibly, the programme was pulled, even though it might have helped. It was jarring enough watching Martyn Lewis - the apostle, don't forget, of good news - announcing Dando's death on the Six O'Clock News (BBC1), another programme she used to present. And then there was Kate Adie's report from outside her house. And the comprehensive tribute ordered by ITV executives, who must have rather resented her enormous popularity, presented by Trevor McDonald. The bewildering, distressing irony of it all.
I don't propose to add too many more column inches to those already devoted to Dando's murder (just referring to her as Dando feels irreverent verging on blasphemous; on news bulletins and in headlines she has become plain, sainted Jill). I certainly don't wish to expose myself to the politically correct pieties of those who believe that the response to one woman's death has, in the light of the Balkans war, been disproportionate. That, as one letter to a national newspaper idiotically put it, it is insensitive to talk of news of Dando's death as "a bombshell".
If anything, the Dando murder dropped too soon down the running orders, as political and moral sensibilities overtook the instinct to lead with the news in which the nation was most interested. In any case, we have been hearing that it might even be linked to the war; that, as the face of BBC News, she might have been executed by a Serb assassin in revenge for the Nato attack on a Serbian TV station. Has the world gone mad? Or, as a racially motivated nail-bombing campaign gathers momentum, is it just England?
In Modern Times: Think of England (BBC2), Martin Parr wandered through the land, from Blackpool promenade to Henley Regatta to the Cerne Abbas village show, asking people for their definition of Englishness. At a motorway service station, an elderly man said: "We've got all the beautiful things of the world here in England, all you've got is a load of filth abroad ... we're too easy-going with the blacks ... send a few of them out of the country a bit." Next to him, his son chuckled at the old man's bluntness. Parr, I imagine, was pleased to have a bit of racism in the can.
On Blackpool prom, he got a bit more. "Too many immigrants here," chirped a burly young man, before being upstaged by a black woman, who said how much she loved England as the young man skulked in the background. It looked good but meant nothing. Parr's film edged us no closer to a definition of Englishness, and there was, moreover, a whiff of condescension about it - you could almost see people being engulfed by waves of BBC intellectual superiority. Actually, the most effective thing Parr could have done was to have turned the camera on himself. If Englishness means anything it is self-absorption, an obsession with our own traits and eccentricities. Cliff Michelmore and Alan Whicker were presenting the same programme aeons ago - probably from Blackpool prom, Henley and the Cerne Abbas show.
Still, there were some glittering nuggets in this pile of unoriginality. "I've got a little car, I've got a little house, I've got a little wife, I've got three little kids and I've got a nice little job," said the man who runs the trampolines on Hunstanton beach, a little Englander if ever there was one. In Bridport, Dorset, a teenager moaned about the lack of things to do. "It's crap here ... there isn't even a McDonald's ... you've got to go all the way to Yeovil." I'm not surprised that line made the final cut. For smug metropolitans like me, and I dare say Parr, who have always considered Yeovil to be at the end of a B-road from the back of beyond, it was heaven-sent.
Heaven loomed large in The Passion (BBC1), the first in a three-part drama set in a Devon village probably not too far from Bridport, but a place which conquers boredom by annually mounting a series of medieval mystery plays. Gina McKee played Ellie, a happily married costume designer for whom the sight of Jesus (played by Paul Nicholls, the star who rose in the east, or at any rate in EastEnders) in his loincloth was one temptation too far.
There were some nice touches in Mick Ford's script, as when Nicholls, playing a supposedly professional actor hired in London, was introduced to his fellow cast members - "Jesus, Satan ... Satan, Jesus." There were also some flaws. A child of at least five was described as a toddler, and those of us with five-year-old children know they are nearer teenagers than toddlers.
Also, given that his character was supposed to have had a globe-trotting childhood, it was never altogether clear where Nicholls got his Blackburn accent from. Maybe there was supposed to be some religious mystique about it. I was certainly mystified by the invisible rock band which played during his midnight swim. On the other hand, it's worth remembering that when Alfred Hitchcock insisted he wanted no music to accompany his film Lifeboat, on the basis that people would wonder where the music was coming from in the middle of the ocean, the studio's music department head said, "Just ask Mr Hitchcock where the camera comes from, and I'll tell him where the music comes from."
On the whole, I enjoyed The Passion, but in any case, who am I criticise? As Jeremy Paxman put it in the final of University Challenge (BBC2), "Which scourge of performers did Brendan Behan describe as being like eunuchs in a harem - they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they are unable to do it themselves?" Critics, obviously. To have been remotely challenging, the question should have started, "Who compared critics to eunuchs in a harem ...?" Another question went, "In the film Muriel's Wedding, the heroine is obsessed by the music of which Swedish group?" Unamazingly enough, it was Abba. Either I am getting smarter or University Challenge is being dumbed down. Probably the latter. I was sent a tape of the final - won, incidentally by the Open University - boldly labelled "University Challange".
And so to a graduate, magna cum laude, of the university of life. The story of Diana Dors was told - interminably, over two nights - in The Blonde Bombshell (ITV). Keeley Hawes played the young Diana, Amanda Redman the older version. Hawes is a fine actress, but wasn't quite right in this. There were, in fact, scores of flaws in the Hawes Dors. Above all, she was too posh, more cut-glass than hour-glass. Redman was more convincing as the older version, although her cleavage never looked, as did the real thing, as though it might conceivably be hiding Lord Lucan. For my generation, Diana Dors is memorable only for her appearances alongside Pat Coombs and Arthur Mullard on Celebrity Squares, by which time she was more beer- glass than hour-glass.
Sadly, the production was badly served by Ted Whitehead's script, which was a spectacular triumph of cliche over content. The Hawes Dors had only to pucker her lips for bowler-hatted bailiffs and trilby-hatted reporters to fall at her feet. Hats played a big part in this production. And if ratings climbed for Tuesday's second instalment, I will eat mine.
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