Last Night's Television - Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, BBC2; Fish: A Japanese Obsession, BBC4; Cleopatra, Portrait of a Killer, BBC1
Slow death on the Nile
Tuesday 24 March 2009
To the best of my knowledge, only one woman in all of history has enjoyed the posthumous distinction of being played by Peggy Ashcroft, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Vanessa Redgrave and Amanda Barrie (later Alma Sedgwick in Coronation Street), although this fascinating nugget of information was overlooked by Neil Oliver, the excitable presenter of
Cleopatra, Portrait of a Killer. He was far more interested in whether a skeleton found at Ephesus in modern Turkey was that of Arsinoe, Cleopatra's spirited little sister, who apparently was murdered on Mark Antony's orders after a spot of typically venomous pillow talk from her older sibling. You needled Cleopatra at your peril and that might be all my Cleopatra jokes used up, except of course that Carry On Cleo, featuring lovely Amanda Barrie, contained one of the cinema's great lines (albeit borrowed by Talbot Rothwell from a radio script by Denis Norden and Frank Muir). "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!" cried Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar, fending off an assassination attempt.
Assassination was all the rage back in the first century BC, so I wasn't quite sure why Oliver got quite so worked up by the idea that Cleopatra had Arsinoe bumped off. But then, Oliver got worked up about everything in this overwrought documentary, perhaps as a necessary counterpoint to the monotone verdicts of the various archaeologists he consulted, all of whom were Austrian. One shouldn't generalise, I know, but Austrians are not the most demonstrative of people, and their brand of German is the least expressive of languages. Even Austrian game show hosts sound like archaeologists, so you can imagine what Austrian archaeologists sound like: like sand and old bones would, if they could speak.
In the right hands, of course, there is nothing remotely dry about archaeology. But Paul Elston's documentary strove far too hard to give the subject zip and zest, not just using as his presenter a man who could make the search for a bus ticket sound like a quest for the Holy Grail, but every other device he could lay his hands on, including an ominous title, zooming cameras, wind machines, over-the-top, wobbly jowled acting, and practically every instrument in the orchestra. The regrettable intrusion of background music into the foreground is a drum I like to bang frequently, and this programme deserves a real wallop. Here was a story, enthused Oliver, about the most famous woman in history. Violins. Piano. Bassoon. It was a story of power, lust and sibling rivalry. Trumpets. Zither. French horn. A story about a ruthless killer. Xylophone. Organ. Cymbals.
Clearly, he and Elston were trying to stop viewers turning over to a contemporary crime drama (Law & Order: UK, as the scheduling gods decreed it) by showing them that a programme about Cleopatra's sister's remains could be just as dramatic as any modern-day police procedural. This was a reasonable enough objective, but by overdoing it, they committed the cardinal TV sin of patronising their audience. After all, we might just conclude that history that needs sexing up with zithers and wind machines is history best left unexcavated.
Similarly, a type of puffer fish so potentially toxic that the emperor is legally not allowed to eat it, is probably a puffer fish worth avoiding, yet there are restaurants in Japan where it is the only thing on the menu. In Fish: a Japanese Obsession, the "writer and fisherman" Charles Rangeley-Wilson explored this and many other scaley subjects as a way of shedding light on the Japanese character.
Insofar as he discovered that Japan seems to be a singularly odd place, he arguably succeeded, although the Japanese are not as odd as I first thought when in London a few years ago I met an expatriate businessman from Tokyo and asked him what he missed most about his homeland. "Bus stops," he said, and explained that he missed being able to take showers in bus stops. "You have showers in bus stops in Tokyo?" I asked. "Yes," he said. I delved further. "While waiting for the bus to arrive?" He looked slightly puzzled but said yes, and I carried this bizarre image in my head for several hours until the clap of revelation (bugle, bagpipes, kettle drum) that what he had actually been saying was "bath tub". On the other hand, Rangeley-Wilson found a rock band who sing only about the tuna, while wearing tuna masks. And they're not shunned, either. In fact, they have a considerable following. So maybe, by comparison, showers at Tokyo bus stops wouldn't be weird at all.
Still, who are we to scoff at other cultures, when there is so much to scoff at in our own? In Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, our host turned his gimlet eye on British television, and had riotous fun with the notion that Del Boy falling through the open bar on Only Fools and Horses is repeatedly voted The Funniest Moment Ever on Television, and will be shown again and again "until the rocks melt and the sea burns".
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