The Jewwal and the Crown
Sunday 04 June 1995
Hopping skittishly from one foot to the other, the supermodel looked like a six-year-old eager to visit the bathroom. Her outfit was more grown- up: a black dress with a white Peter-Pan collar, it would have been just fine on anyone under the age of 13. There was a pair of dinky white boots, too, but you only ever saw those in long shot because they were several hundred yards away at the other end of Claudia's legs. "This year's most successful musical artists have gathered from everywhere on the planet, to honour their own, to perform their biggest hits, and, er, to have a look at Claudia Schiffer," said Luke. It was a bracing admission in an event otherwise entirely unclouded by sincerity. The real purpose of it all soon became clear: both hosts and guests were gathered together in slack-jawed admiration for the House of Monaco's video diary. Like an obsequious courtier, the camera kept returning to the front row of the audience to record Prince Albert getting on down to the winning acts; as Albert is to boogying what our own heir apparent is to hip hop, this was not an unqualified success. But you could already see the Hello! caption: "Albert - a man at ease with himself and the contemporary pop scene!"
Back on stage, Luke told us he felt proud to introduce "one of Monaco's most distinguished and best-known citizens. A recording artist as well as a member of Monaco's princely family, she understands royalty in every sense of the word!" Previously only distinguished for sulking and designing swim- ming costumes in the thong-sur-dong style, Her Serene Highness Princess Stephanie looked properly amazed at her ecstatic reception. She presented a gold ball trophy to Boyz 2 Men. Cool in cream linen, the boyz thanked "Lord Jesus Christ for being first in our lives". The audience seemed puzzled - if this Lord guy was really number one, how come he wasn't collecting an award?
Everyone else was. Like a children's party, there were prizes for all. One for the "world's bestselling Canadian female recording artist"; one for the world's bestselling Benelux recording artist; and one for the world's most promising American female newcomer, a sassy lass called Sheryl. By the standards of the evening, Sheryl's acceptance speech was modest in its scope: "I would like to thank every person on the planet for this award." Quite a lot of them were watching, as it turned out. The show was beaming to 93 countries, "including the People's Republic of China" said Claudia, with the daffy smile of one who hails from another planet altogether. You couldn't help wondering what the red hordes, sucking contemplatively on their noodles, would make of this display of flatulent sentiment and pointless wealth. Historians may well record that the drift of China towards capitalism was reversed by a tall German blonde in white boots.
The World Music Awards was a terrible show, but it was too inconsequential to be offensive. For real pernicious- ness you have to look to programmes with a big idea. The Living Dead (BBC2) sounded a lot like the Monaco royals, but turned out to be the first of three films by Adam Curtis about the power of the past. On The Desperate Edge of Now set out to prove that at the Nuremberg Trials, the Allies created the myth of the good war, leaving out the painful fragments that didn't fit. Actually, I lie. No proof was on offer. What we got was interviews with a couple of American veterans (one of whom has become a writer, though we weren't told that), quirky anecdotes about Herman Goering's nail polish, and the confused central thesis repeated over and over against a remarkable, though unsourced, series of archive clips. One, in particular, showed a prisoner bursting through a first-floor balcony, being dragged back inside and, seconds later, a bullet breaking the glass. It was a poignant illustration of the point that the narrator was making about Goering and police power. Playing it back, though, you saw how the jerky movements suggested an earlier, maybe even silent, era of film-making. Was this image fact or fiction? It was a question that surrounded the whole programme.
After winning an award for Pandora's Box, Curtis has clearly decided he is an artist, eschewing the traditional dirty realism of British documentary for the higher impressionism. Such creative licence would be admirable, were this not a producer who repeatedly rebukes the Allies for playing fast and loose with the truth. At Nuremberg, we are told that the prosecutors showed a six-hour film of edited lowlights from the Third Reich. One of Curtis's witnesses describes this film as biased. What would an unbiased film have shown - the Waffen SS giving piggy backs to gypsy children? The aggrieved tone reminded you of one of those Rough Justice scripts: "He was a small dark Austrian with a moustache who only wanted to be left in peace to take over the world, now he is being forced to take the blame for a war he didn't commit!"
The really insulting thing about The Living Dead is that Curtis assumes the victors didn't give a second thought to the war, whereas in fact we have had 50 years of historical sleuthing and moral soul-searching. Few of the soldiers who returned home safe will have believed that evil had been routed forever. They had cut one head off the hydra, but others would sprout in the next generation. According to one of Curtis's witnesses, the Allies were "destroying human beings for the sake of a new post-war world". Pardon me, I was under the impression they were obliged to destroy human beings so that there would be a world left at all.
Curtis would not have done well on Monkhouse's Memory Masters (BBC1) which only recruits "ordinary people with normal memories". You can picture the scene: "So, Adam Curtis, did we win the war?" "No, it was a dead heat between two equal evils." The show sends contestants on a course to learn techniques that improve recall. Three then compete against each other. There is none of the poignant undertow or gut tug of real remembering, this is strictly statistical: "Marcel Proust, a writer from Cambrai, you have 20 seconds to recall how many madeleines were consumed by your village between 1880 and 1885, starting now!" Admittedly, there was a certain fancy-that frisson watching Anne, Brian and Stephanie match the names of 120 Littlewoods employees to their telephone extensions, but like a bore's party trick it soon palled. The best - because the most human - parts of the show came when contestants confessed the word pictures they had drawn in their minds as an aide-memoire. "For Dean Anthony Wall," explained Stephanie, "I had a picture of James Dean leaning against a wall with an ant up his leg, eating a bag of crisps." Of course.
There is no forgetting Bob Monkhouse. That nicotine complexion, the slow snake smile, those deliquescent eyes - you can imagine him on the back of a wagon yelling: "Roll up, roll up, Monkhouse's Patent Palsy Remedy!" This is pretty much the role he has carved out for himself in TV - a huckster of tat who secretes a charm so oleaginous that even the rustiest format works without a squeak. It's all in the voice, the way the hushed intensive- care manner suddenly brightens to a yelp of approval. But even Bob's sly comic gifts can't make this a show to remember.
It was bad timing by BBC1 to launch the dreary Castles in the very week that Howards' Way began its triumphant lunchtime rerun. Both series deal in warring middle-class families, but the latter, with its exciting nautical setting and late-Seventies leisurewear, leaves Castles well and truly beached. It was a pleasure to get reacquainted with the smouldering Ken Masters and his Tackle Shop. Highly recommended to all those who still miss The Woodentops.
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