REVIEW / The spy now departing from Platform 2 . . .
Saturday 23 April 1994
The new growth industry is espionage. We've been here before, of course, but the difference between now and the Cold War is that the new spies are not just geniuses skimmed off the top of the Oxbridge creme de la creme. In this sector, anyone can apply: it actually pays to be a dullard full of dumb questions, although exactly how much is the one thing we never found out. One woman who spies full time would only admit that it was 'lucrative'.
The objects of the espionage are not despotic foreigners or industrial vivisectionists, but our lovable public services. Thanks to an elusive document known in some inner circles as the 'Citizen's Charter', but to everyone else as 'an absorbent piece of scented tissue that wipes away even the nastiest stains', these are meant to be user-friendlier.
The way we improve a public service is by spying on it, then putting the results on the box. The brilliance of the scheme is that it costs a lot less to pay someone to spot a leaking roof than it does to mend the leak, and anyway mending the leak won't massage the DoE's monthly figures.
In last night's episode, we were spying on the London Underground with a concealed camera, a mike masquerading as a brolly and a school-of-nerd presenter called Dylan. As Dylan accompanied various MI6 wannabes up and down the Victoria Line, it became apparent that this wasn't to be King's Cross's week. On Tuesday in The Day I Nearly Died (ITV) survivors of the conflagration in 1987 told how they brushed with death by fire. Here we met the clock that commemorates the victims of that disaster: it had succumbed to a burst water pipe. Just a little mechanical failure - nothing too serious - but, like the proposed D-Day fun day, indicative of the way we can't even remember the dead without a cock-up.
The programme was beginning to look like a brutal commentary on the fraying British infrastructures long before we were introduced to the manager of the Victoria Line. He was called John Self, who has an oafish doppelganger in the work of Martin Amis. Like the poems and paintings on the Underground, he was doubtless employed as part of the initiative to make the Tube look arty and hip. There are probably other staff called things like Daniel Defoe, Lady Bracknell and Martin Chuzzlewit.
By the end of the film it was the staff you felt for. The men all wear clip-on ties which, when grabbed, come clean away from the collar: you can't get a terser symbol of the gulf in trust between private citizens and public services than that.
If you think we've got problems with communication, watch Africa Express (C 4). Among last night's grab-bag of reports was one about a bush tribe in Namibia which faces economic marginalisation because its language is spoken but not written; another came from an Ethiopian village where, in order not to share water- carrying chores with the donkeys, women have enlisted in the army.
It was no surprise that one of the programme's chirpy presenters looked like a Blue Peter graduate, because this is anthropological tourism in the style of those summer hols John, Peter and Val used to go on.
The format targets the early-evening teenage viewer with a short attention span: reports aren't too long to get boring, and each begins with a tired title ('The Write Stuff', 'War and Peace' - Tom Wolfe and Tolstoy have a lot to answer for) and ends with a sprightly fact file. A similar series on that absorbent piece of scented tissue would be of great assistance to us all.
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