Last Night's Television: Alan Whicker's Journey Of A Lifetime, BBC2
The Apprentice, BBC1
Queens Of British Pop, BBC1
Thursday 02 April 2009
In fact, the dapper conservatism of his dress almost certainly helped, particularly when he found himself reporting from California, a state which, as he pointed out, prided itself on getting to the future several years ahead of the rest of the world. A younger reporter might have been suspected of a proselytising motive in filming hippies dropping acid amid the redwoods or recording the first gay kiss to be screened on British television. But Whicker, impeccably respectable and never flustered, arms folded in bemused inspection, was manifestly a detached observer. And if he didn't get in an on-screen panic about people smoking dope or two men getting married, it implicitly suggested that no one else really need to either. Revisiting a gay pastor he'd first interviewed back in the Seventies – for a programme on California's burgeoning gay-pride movement – Whicker discovered that the man's British friends had first warned him to be on his guard and then, after the programme had gone out, talked tearfully about its impact on them, as the first programme they'd seen in which the normality of homosexuality had been unhysterically acknowledged. The pastor, fluent and articulate, could take some credit for that. But Whicker, one of the least moralising of the old big beasts of television, deserved some too. You only had to imagine how Malcolm Muggeridge might have covered the same story to see how bemused curiosity can be a kind of liberalism in itself.
He hasn't changed much, even if the moustache is whiter than it used to be, and the gait a little stiffer. He's still fond of alliteration (we have, he said, "an insatiable appetite for the goings-on in this lavish, loony place on America's far-out fringe) and he still likes open-topped Rollers (though that may have been a producer, contriving a neat edit between past and present footage). There have though been large changes in California and what you can show on television. Back then the gay kiss was borderline stuff. These days the camera can cheerfully pan over a T-shirt in a boutique window, which would once have led to questions in the House: "Love Sucks. True Love Swallows". The best bits in the series are when you get to see the original interviewees 30 years on, including, in one case, a San Francisco policeman who had made the shift from Stephanie to Steve in the intervening years. But even when there isn't a "now" to justify the "then", the material bears re-inspection. Whicker, during a report on California's gun culture, interviewed an unnerving old dame who proudly recounted the serial fatalities she'd inflicted while defending the cash register in her liquor store. "I shoot 'em twice," she said cheerfully, "If I can't get them in those two, then I quit." Her husband, sitting alongside her with an understandable meekness, was wearing a wig so appalling that it constituted an offensive weapon in itself. I also enjoyed Whicker's question to the executive from the Cryonics Society, who had just sidestepped an inquiry about whether they had Walt Disney on ice. "Are you awaiting any other famous freezees?," he said politely.
Queens of British Pop is also dependent on the pleasures of old telly clips – a breezy and slightly purposeless celebration of pop divas, which didn't appear to be able to distinguish between the genuinely great and influential (Dusty Springfield) and acts who just hit a good wave and knew how to ride it to the beach (Suzi Quatro). It's a little disappointing, really, because they had interviewees who might have delivered something more substantial, from Burt Bacharach to Lulu (admirably unsnippy about appearing only as commentator rather than a subject). The biggest surprise here was John Lydon, on hand to express his enthusiasm for the music of Kate Bush. "Those shrieks and warbles," he said of "Wuthering Heights", "are beautiful beyond belief to me." His mum didn't agree, apparently. "Oh Johnny," she said, "it sounds like a bag of cats." Curiously, they were both right.
"We were looking like complete prats," said Majid in The Apprentice, complaining about the fact that he'd been required to pitch a catering contract at roughly 400 per cent of the going rate. This struck me as rich coming from a man who at some point must have thought to himself "Hmm... what can I do to my real beard to make it look as much like a fake beard as possible?" The greatest mystery now though is not Majid's facial hair, but the meaning of the phrase, "you could certainly bunny off a scratch". Derogatory, I take it, given Sir Alan's expression and clearly something to do with verbosity. Beyond that though I'm lost.
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