Last Night's Television - Whitechapel, ITV1; The Princess and the Gangster, Channel 4
Don't mess with the firm
Tuesday 10 February 2009
John Bindon was a charismatic fellow, a great story-teller and the life and soul of every party. He was an occasional actor, who popped up in some seminal 1960s films, including Get Carter and Ken Loach's Poor Cow, playing an alternative version of himself, for he was also a violent small-time criminal and a bully. His posh girlfriend, the Hon Vicki Hodge, still has knife marks to show for their relationship.
However, it was for none of the above that, in the 1970s, Bindon's name was as familiar to me and my schoolfriends as those of our teachers. Somehow, word that he was prodigiously endowed in the manhood department got from the pubs of west London, where Bindon used to hang out in more ways than one, to the corridors of our north-of-England grammar school. It could almost have been me and my mates reminiscing fondly in The Princess and the Gangster, but instead it was Bindon's old friends recalling his party pieces, one of which was to "whirl it around like a helicopter". "He used to slap it on the bar," remembered Hodge. "I just thought it was frightfully funny." At my school, it was even claimed that he could stand six pints of beer on it. He was a legend in his own lunchbox.
The central question of this rather tacky documentary was whether Princess Margaret took Bindon's lunchbox to bed. They met in her playpen, the Caribbean island of Mustique, in 1973. Her marriage to Lord Snowdon was as good as over, and Bindon was taking a timely holiday while coppers in Fulham looked for him in connection with some brouhaha or other. Margaret didn't know that he was a villain, just that he was terribly amusing. She also, it was reported by some of her entourage, was treated to his helicopter trick, after which her "lady-in-waiting sat down and said, 'Well, I've seen bigger'."
Whatever, Margaret and Bindon continued to see each other back in London, and the security forces had a quiet word with him when it emerged that he had photos of himself on Mustique that were deemed likely to "embarrass" the Royal Family. Whether any of this was worthy of an hour of our time or indeed Channel 4's, I'm not sure. Margaret's friends always denied that Bindon was anything other than an acquaintance, and of all the people interviewed here, only Hodge, rather desperately basking in the dubious reflected glory, clung to the belief that they had been sexually involved.
Still, I quite enjoyed the image of Margaret turning furiously in her grave, not so much at the suggestion that she had taken Bindon to the royal bed, but with indignation at the "lookalike" hired for the inevitable dramatic reconstructions. She might have been an appalling woman who behaved with monstrous hauteur towards almost everyone, but she didn't deserve quite such a horsey doppelgänger.
Nor, in truth, did she deserve title billing in what was basically a programme about Bindon – who became a reclusive heroin addict and died of an Aids-related illness in 1993 – in which she should have had little more than a wave-on part. It was plainly absurd to imply, as this documentary did, that she owed her plunge in public opinion to the association with Bindon, which was broken by the Daily Mirror after he was tried for murder, and somewhat mysteriously acquitted, in 1978. There have been some right royal scandals since then that made this one seem very small beer indeed. All the same, speaking of beer, it was good to be reminded of the rumours about Bindon's manhood that used to entertain my schoolfriends and me.
Returning to royal scandals, it is sometimes claimed that one of Queen Victoria's grandsons, the Duke of Clarence, was Jack the Ripper. This theory was aired again last night as the hunt for a modern-day copycat Ripper gathered pace in the increasingly preposterous yet still-watchable Whitechapel, in which Racquel from Only Fools and Horses (or at least the actress who played her, Tessa Peake-Jones) became the latest disembowelled victim. Not so cushty.
Whoever is committing these dreadful crimes is rapidly turning into the drama's most plausible character. The coppers down Whitechapel nick are obviously products of a writer's wishful thinking, with their iffy personal hygiene and inability to understand the word "fallible", while their boss, Detective Inspective Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones), looks more and more as though he wandered on to the wrong set while making an episode of Heartbeat or Poirot. And yet I find that I want to know what happens next, if only to resolve the question of whether DI Chambers's second-in-command, DS Miles (Phil Davis), practically Olympic standard in the business of jumping to conclusions, is as thick as he appears to be.
One final word on Whitechapel. Last week, I was prepared to forgive the over-zealous use of background music, but during last night's episode, the attempt to depict East End alleyways late at night as deserted except for killer and victim was thoroughly undermined by the apparent presence of not one orchestra but several.
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