Last Night's Television: Dragon's Den, BBC2<br />Storyville: The Trials Of Oppenheimer

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

They appear to have gone slightly mad with the credit sequence for Dragons' Den, lining their notional fire-breathers up in front of a derelict warehouse on a windswept brownfield site. It looks like the opening sequence for an apocalyptic kind of super-hero show, or some Winneresque crime drama in which five middle-management vigilantes take the law into their own hands because society has gone soft on muggers and rapists. In truth, though, these five should be the ones in the hoodies, loitering down a dark alley waiting for innocent inventors to come along so they can bundle them for a big stake of their business or just rough them up and send them on their way. The first hopeful up last night looked as if he was going to be toast from the moment his head came into sight on the staircase. Rupert Sweet-Escott was introduced by Evan Davis as a "prolific inventor", always a slightly worrying combination of words, suggesting as it does a frenzied succession of failed ideas, and Rupert's appearance didn't exactly quieten the anxiety. He came in as if he'd dressed for a fancy-dress party as a dragonfly and the tube doors had closed on his wings. When he announced that he was seeking funding for a pedal-powered hang-glider the dragons started to giggle and when he unveiled an assistant dangling beneath a stepladder, as if some complicated bit of sex-play had gone wrong, they lost it completely.

Rupert though was revealed to be a Susan Boyle, brought on for a bit of light mob bullying, but then turning the tables on us with an unexpectedly impressive performance. A business portfolio that included a palm-tree business, occasional roofing work, alternative energy and innovative light aircraft sounded like a classic midlife crisis but actually rested on precocious success in designing flex-wing aircraft. And Rupert's stammering delivery wasn't evidence of mental fragility, it was just a stammer, which didn't prevent him from persuading the dragons to stop giggling and take him a bit more seriously. Most of them backed out anyway, on the perfectly sensible grounds that they didn't know anything about hang-gliders, but then James Caan went crazy and offered him £80,000 for half of his company. It seemed a wild punt to me, but Rupert was thrilled.

Having tasted blood but not swallowed any, the dragons were not in a mood to give the following plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt. Eddie, who was pitching the oxymoronic concept of ecologically friendly patio heaters (put a sweater on, you bloody fools), got short shrift after being a little coy about his manufacturing costs. "I find you arrogant, rude and insulting," said Theo Paphitis, qualities which are indispensable to a good edition of Dragons' Den, as we all know, but which the panel seem to believe they have under monopoly licence. A women peddling personalised erotic novels was waved away as if she had mucus dangling from one nostril and the guy trying to sell the Anti Wrinkle Hat – a kind of mechanical facelift – was employed for a brisk five-aside kickaround. Then, satisfyingly, we got one of those pitchers who have the dragon's fighting like rats in a sack for the opportunity to invest. Personally, I like it best when these applicants toy with them for an extended period – levering the deal steadily upwards – and then announce that they're confident they can do better on their own. Didn't happen this time sadly, but at least a few snouts were put out of joint.

Storyville: The Trials of Oppenheimer was what the Americans call deep-dish stuff, a detailed account of Robert Oppenheimer's career and his later ordeal at the hands of a confederacy of dunces. It drew heavily on transcripts of the 1954 hearing to investigate the accusation that Oppenheimer had been a security risk because of his communist sympathies and connections, and delivered a kind of compromised tragedy, in which the flaws and weakness of a brilliant man were used by his enemies to bring him low. The actor David Straithairn was a fine match for the archive footage of Oppenheimer, and generated a real pathos out of Oppenheimer's humiliation when confronted with a silly lie he'd told during wartime, in order to alert the Secret Service to a possible security breach without compromising a friend. Why had he not told the full truth, one of his inquisitors asked: "Because I was an idiot," Oppenheimer replied, a real self-laceration from a man who had always prided himself on his superiority of intelligence. Oppenheimer was effectively being punished for his opposition to the hydrogen bomb project, taking the view that the atom bomb he'd helped to invent was quite sufficiently appalling to ensure deterrence. But the bomb freaks won. In 1954, the US had around 300 nuclear weapons and by the end of the 20th century around 70,000, a figure matched by the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer was an idiot once or twice. His enemies kept it up for decades.

Comments