REVIEW : Never mind the facts, feel the controversy

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The Independent Culture
All too often, J'Accuse (C4) presents the spectacle of sensible figures coaxed into foolishness by the requirements of form. Watching it is oddly dispiriting, rather like the experience of sitting down to a meal in which good ingredients have been purposefully masked by the same unchanging boil-in-the-bag sauce. The flavour, of course, is controversy, that fashionable spice for the intellectually bland. However stale the issue, however gamey the simplifications, a ladleful of controversy will make the thing presentable - or perhaps I simply mean saleable.

Last night it was Stephen Bayley's turn to put his common sense through the programme's floor routine - stock movements of indignation and outrage and cultural absolutism. His subject, unfortunately, was the National Trust, an institution that has already been given a comprehensive mugging by various interested parties due to the fact it celebrates its centenary this year. Much of what he said - that the National Trust freezes its properties into a false simulation of life, that it encourages an enervating adulation of the past - has been said already, which made it hard for him to look quite as fearless as the programme might have liked.

In this case Goliath was staggering around with a serious head wound while David was still looking for a nicely shaped rock. It wasn't that Bayley's arguments were stupid - they weren't. And, as far as it goes, he does find nicely shaped rocks - pitching his criticisms in little baroque verbal flourishes. He seems suspicious of floral sprigging when it comes to interior decoration, but not when it comes to argument - I had never encountered the word "armigerous" before (meaning entitled to bear heraldic arms), but it added a nice frill to his dismissal of the snobbery inherent in the National Trust's country house programme. His is an unusually dandified way to fight for the virtues of modernism.

The problem is that his own recognition of the contradictions in his argument has to be suppressed to fit the demands of the series for journalistic noise. Nobody ever wrote a headline such as "Man is reasonable about National Trust". Towards the end of the film, you arrived at J'Accuse's familiar "Of course..." section, a brief passage in which the obvious ripostes are briskly acknowledged, but only to clear the way for more exaggeration. As with other presenters in the series, the token nod at a sense of perspective allowed Bayley to indulge in vertiginous distortions of the picture, as when he presented Alan Clark's home - dog-eared, moth-eaten, much loved - as a practical alternative to the spotless restorations of National Trust properties. "So eccentric millionaires can look after castles," he said, as if they were milling about homeless, pining for a family seat to cherish. There was an unacknowledged snobbery here at odds with his democratic distaste for the accommodations the National Trust had come to with grand families. Why is it more "authentic" for a house to be looked after by an individual than by a charity, unless you have a particular reverence for armigerous tradition? The film, it should be said, looked good, being directed with tasteful decorum by Paul Wilmshurst.

"Heigh Ho", the second element of Without Walls, showed what the strand can do at its best. Nigel Duckers's film followed seven dwarfs as they rehearsed and performed in pantomime. He filmed the actors talking with a tight crop on their heads, giving them an ordinariness on screen they can't have in life, and he had an uncondescending eye for the small humiliations of being so small: from the unreachable coat-hook to the tendency of everyone to treat you as children. "Some of the dwarfs were very naughty last night," said the pantomime's director, complaining about a drinking session. This might have been theatrical twee, but it sounded more like an assumption that they had never grown up.

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