THE CRITICS: TELEVISION: The phantom documentary

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The Independent Culture
Nobody understands advertising quite like the BBC. To round off its Twister Week, a real live tornado rearranged part of the West Midlands. Is that classy, or what? Someone there, perhaps the Director-General-elect, clearly has a hotline to the Almighty. Mercifully, Channel 4 executives are not quite as well- connected, or last weekend's Nostradamus Night might have got really interesting.

The relationship between the BBC and advertising is a long and turbulent one. In the old days, when Blue Peter's Valerie Singleton was forced to say "chocolate-covered button sweets" instead of Smarties, they used to pretend not to know one another. Now, their affair is an open secret. I read somewhere that the two most expensive BBC productions of last year were advertisements for itself. And what was Omnibus (BBC1) but a glossy 55-minute advertisement for the new Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace, rather feebly masquerading as a documentary? I watched the credits carefully, half-expecting to read "conceived, produced, paid for and greatly enjoyed by George Lucas".

There is, in fact, a good documentary waiting to be made about The Phantom Menace, a film which has been energetically rubbished by the American critics. What on earth, or on any other planet for that matter, must it feel like to blow a sum equivalent to the defence budget of a small country on a film promptly dismissed as garbage? And what is it like to bear responsibility for the dreams of millions of Star Wars fans? I am no lover of science- fiction myself, considering it an essentially fraudulent business. After all, here we are, less than six months away from the year 2000, with absolutely no sign of the gigantic, intergalactic, man-eating squid that so troubled Martin Landau in Space 1999. Yet I know people who are hooked on science- fiction, one of whom can still recite improbably large chunks of dialogue from the Star Wars films, notwithstanding Harrison Ford's complaint while struggling with his lines, that "you can type this shit but you can't say it".

Ford was interviewed on Omnibus, as was Lucas himself, who, as perhaps befits someone so fascinated with the outer reaches of the galaxy, appears to have a black hole where his personality should be. But then not even Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who are generally worth listening to, had much to add between all the extravagant clips of The Phantom Menace, one of which featured Liam Neeson in a big dressing- gown ostentatiously cocking an ear. "You hear that," he said to Ewan McGregor. "That is the sound of the Thousand Terrible Things heading this way." Oh Lord, I thought. He's heard about BBC1's autumn schedule.

A cheap shot, which I withdraw unreservedly. But there are times when BBC1 does appear to have lost the plot. Omnibus was a disgrace, and while I'm all for light entertainment, and can even put up with entertainment lite, Star Secrets (BBC1) makes a good deal of even Channel 5's early- evening output look heavyweight. It is presented by the exceedingly lovely Carol Smillie, who must wonder what she did, or whose ceiling she clumsily Artexed on Changing Rooms, to deserve such a gig. If this series doesn't cause her fabulous neon smile to fuse, nothing will.

Last week the so-called stars whose secrets were unveiled were the actress who plays Mandy Dingle in Emmerdale, the actor who plays Les Battersby in Coronation Street, and Emma Noble. Do I need to go on? I think I do. Mandy Dingle's secret was that she was thrown out of the Girl Guides for squidging pancake mixture into another girl's hair. Les Battersby, when an auxiliary fireman, once collected 200 portions of fish and chips. And when Emma Noble was 12, she impersonated the Nolan Sisters on a home movie. The Nolan Sisters then trooped on to repeat the magic moment. It is said that we get the television programmes we deserve, in which case we should all take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Now if it is true that the Queen was two-timed, then that really is a secret worth revealing, and James Whitaker of the Mirror reckons he would have flushed it out had he been around in the old days. "He's a very lucky man that people like me weren't around in the Fifties," said Whitaker, in the second instalment of The Real Prince Philip (C4), and so are we all.

The Real Prince Philip failed, as have countless projects before it, to substantiate the rumour that the Duke of Edinburgh has had adulterous relationships. Nevertheless, it got better as it wore on, benefiting from some excellent clips and trenchant contributions from the likes of Barbara Castle. She recalled Philip's damaging remark during an American TV interview in 1969, to the effect that the Royal Family were down to their last few priceless tiaras, and that he might even be forced to give up his beloved but expensive polo. As magnificently acerbic in her dotage as she ever was, Castle pointed out that in 1969 the Queen was still by far the richest woman in Britain. "She would surely have stood him a bit of polo."

By crying hard-up, Philip brought down on his own head the edifice he had carefully constructed, for it was he who made possible the pioneering, mystique-destroying documentary Royal Family, yet he who kept antagonising the media. A Sun journalist recalled shivering outside the gates of Sandringham one bitterly cold 1 January. "Happy New Year, sir," called the posse of hacks, as HRH strode by. "Bollocks," he replied.

On the whole, though, Philip emerged sympathetically from this two-parter, as a man who has carried out an extremely difficult non-job with energy and wit. Gyles Brandreth - billed as a "friend," which arguably damns Philip's character far more effectively than Barbara Castle ever could - positively drooled with praise for the way Philip goes about his fund- raising activities. But when it comes to accumulating money, Prince Philip can only dream of emulating Charles and Maurice Saatchi, the subjects of another excellent documentary, Masters of Illusion (C4). If the programme had a flaw, it was that it perhaps didn't try hard enough to find people prepared to be nice about the brothers Saatchi. Where oh where was Gyles Brandreth? Even Sean Scully, the artist Charles Saatchi has enthusiastically championed, seemed less than effusive about his patron.

Masters of Illusion concentrated on the extraordinary way in which the Saatchis constructed their empire, buying up countless companies in the offhand way a child gathers building blocks. In truth, I found it rather hard to follow the byzantine corporate shenanigans, but greatly enjoyed being reminded of their ads. Charles Saatchi burst on to the advertising scene by devising the famous pregnant man - "Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?" Not half, say the men who watched Maternity (BBC1). But of course we chaps aren't nearly strong enough for childbirth. The only fact I remember from ante-natal classes, one I am very fond of repeating at every possible opportunity, is that if a man's bladder were powered by a muscle as strong as the uterus, he could pee across the Thames.

For a series about a condition that starts so very easily, Maternity took ages to get going. For the first 20 minutes or so, pregnant women speculated rather tediously about impending motherhood, but by the time their waters broke, it was gripping stuff. There were some extremely graphic shots of a woman in agonising labour and her subsequent delivery, but then I knew what to expect because I had watched that morning's Vanessa (BBC1), which staged a debate asking whether certain forthcoming scenes in Maternity were too graphic. As I say, nobody understands advertising quite like the BBC.

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