Last Night's Television: Prescott: The North/South Divide, BBC2
Inside Sport, BBC1
Thursday 15 October 2009
I don't suppose Sir Thomas Legg has a lot of time to watch television at the moment, but since he's worked out the cost of Gordon Brown's repayment to the last 10p he might also be interested in the Case of the Admiralty House Teacup, a shocking abstraction of government property, which was revealed halfway through Prescott: the North/South Divide. To the protests of Pauline ("Oooh, John! For goodness' sake... they'll think I'm a kleptomaniac!"), the former Deputy Prime Minister trotted into the kitchen of his impressive Thameside penthouse to reveal the gilded souvenir Pauline had carried away with her when they left their grace-and-favour residence. Personally, I'm inclined to let bygones be bygones here, because there's something rather touching about the way that Pauline fills out the stereotype of one kind of aspirational Northern woman: modelling her style on Joan Collins, using her telephone voice when out in public, and showing such candid pleasure in the trappings of class. "Things can only get better," she said gleefully, lifting a glass of champagne to the camera as a Learjet flew the Prescotts down to London on the night of the 1997 election, "...but not much." She spoke too soon, really. Still to come were the mock Tudor boards fitted to their Hull constituency house, for which Mr Prescott claimed £312.
They make a good comedy double act, the Prescotts – quite often funny because they intend to be, rather than simply inadvertently. "Where does the North stop and the South begin?" asked Pauline at the beginning of this exploration of geographical prejudice. "Outside our door, isn't it?" replied John, a joke that wasn't entirely a joke, since it neatly summed up the us-and-them mentality that was at the heart of the programme. For Prescott, "them" are Southerners, draining the North of profits and wealth in return for condescension and neglect. "Us" are Northerners, solid types who tell it like it is and never get the respect – or the subsidy – they deserve. The back seat of a chaffeur-driven Jag isn't the most obvious place from which to advance this argument, but Prescott is engagingly unabashed about that, and quite open about the fact that he doesn't want to escape from Northern chippiness, only to find more evidence to justify it.
Quite what the investigative purpose of trundling him around the country was I'm not sure, because he broadly ignored all the evidence that contradicted his thesis, such as the Essex resort of Jaywick that demonstrated that it can be just as grim down South as it proverbially is up North or a new shopping mall in Liverpool, which appeared to suggest that conspicuous consumption is hardly the unique preserve of those inside the M25. It was a bitty sort of affair, tied together not by a coherent argument but by a graphic tracing the Jag's dot-to-dot across the country, the rest stops including a dialogue of the deaf between Prescott and Brian Sewell (who obligingly expressed the opinion that a good bout of plague might sort out the North's problems) and a visit to a fat-fighters' club to illustrate the uneven distribution of the national flab. By the end, all that was really clear was that a simple binary opposition can't begin to do justice to the patchwork of privilege and disadvantage that mottles the British map – but it was entertaining enough while it lasted.
By odd coincidence, the evening featured another shameless confession of petty larceny, with Seve Ballesteros coughing to the theft of two green jackets from the US Masters (even if you win one fair and square you're apparently not supposed to keep it). The club had written to him to politely ask whether he might – inadvertently, of course – have taken them away with him. Yes, they're here, replied Seve, come and pick them up whenever you want. Inside Sport's film about Ballesteros was built around an interview by Peter Alliss, not so much a probing as an adulatory fondling, which was conducted as Seve showed Alliss round his Spanish home. So we got to see the room where Seve keeps his old golf clubs, Seve's self-portrait carpet and Seve's putter-shaped breakfast bar. "His deeds will no doubt prove immortal," said Alliss, never one to underplay the mythic grandeur of golf, but the point of the film was that Seve is not immortal, having recently been coping with a serious brain tumour. He's coping very well, by the looks of things – determined and completely lacking in self-pity – but for all its cosy sentimentality this film left a rather bleak feeling behind it. This was partly because Ballesteros himself – ignoring the 19th-hole clubbability of the approach – confessed to feeling very alone at times. But it was also because the collaged encomia of his fellow players had a whiff of retrospect to them. It was a bit like watching an obituary with the subject unaccountably on hand to show you his trophy cabinet.
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