Last Night's Television: These royal Romeos make for a cheap date
The Undercover Princes, BBC3
All the Young Dudes: Pop and Fashion
Friday 16 January 2009
In The Undercover Princes, three royal personages come to Britain to search for a bride, but to ensure that they are loved for themselves, not for their money and titles, they are travelling incognito, crowns, robes and personal attendants left behind, as they settle into a flat-share in Brighton ("The British Miami," said one prince, who has presumably been listening to the counsels of the Brighton chamber of commerce). "But with just three weeks," demanded the narrator, "can they find true love?"
I don't know about there being nothing new under the sun, but you don't come across it very often on television: this situation is taken straight from the film Coming to America, the first time, I think, an Eddie Murphy vehicle has provided the basis for a reality-TV programme, unless you count Naked Britain, which shared an aesthetic with Nutty Professor II: the Klumps. Next up, the reality version of Trading Places, or at least the bit where the smug banker gets framed for a drug offence and thrown out on the street. That should capture the popular mood.
The three princes are Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, of Rajpipla in western India; Prince Africa Zulu (now there's a name that gives you some hard information) of Onkweni Royal House in South Africa; and Prince Remigius Kanagarajah of the Royal House of Jaffna in Sri Lanka.
Prince Manvendra is India's first openly gay prince, and has gained a certain notoriety, including an appearance on Oprah, though at the start of this programme, his gayness seemed to be largely theoretical. He was "a late starter", explained the commentary, "inexperienced in the ways of the world", and "has never known true love" – yes, I think we get the message. By day, he was working changing sheets in a local hotel, a hard slog for a man used to a staff of maidservants.
In the evenings, though, Manvendra ("Manny", to preserve his incognito) was taking to Brighton's gay scene like a baby-oiled duck to water. Browsing a website, he came across an advert placed by a gentleman looking for uncomplicated oral sex, though more bluntly phrased than that. "Now I am having an erection," Manny noted proudly. Off to a sex shop, where, under a weirdly blurry display of goods, he was conducted round the leather jockstraps and fingered some metal rings for placing round – oh, hang on, I see why they were blurring it now. And then off to a gay club, a prospect he found "not just exciting, but sex-citing". Did the advert ask for GSOH? At the club, he made friends quickly, and even ended up with an offer of sex back at another man's flat, which he turned down. All in all, a promising start, and while I didn't really enjoy prying into Manny's liberation, it was easy to feel that he was being done some good.
Meanwhile, Africa was maintaining that he wasn't at all bothered by Manny's lifestyle choices, though the front would have been more convincing if he hadn't sat down at breakfast and started reading aloud from the bits in the Bible where it talks about not lying with other men. (Pointless in any case, given that Manny was a Hindu.) Even worse, he and Remigius weren't getting anywhere with dating. Africa was working in a pub, which gave the commentary an opportunity to make a joke about pulling pints, not birds. Several sequences in nightclubs, with the pair trying out stilted chat-up lines on largely unreceptive women, brought me out in a cold sweat of recalled adolescent embarrassment. There was something deeply repellent about the way the programme invited the viewer to titter at men who were, in so many ways, caught outside their own societies, struggling to cope with manners and morals foreign to them. The fact that they were all from societies in the developing world, and all had dark skin, made it nastier.
There was a lot that was familiar about All the Young Dudes: Pop and Fashion, too, in which Paul Morley chatted about the connection between fashion and pop music. It descended into bathos from time to time: an evocation of the alien, transsexual glamour of Bowie and Morley's recollections of the difficulty of finding a tribe that would suit his youthful preoccupations (Baudelaire, Nick Drake) somehow culminated in a chat with Noddy Holder from Slade. Morley's description of himself as "a fan, to an extent" felt like an admission that this wasn't quite what he'd envisaged.
We also got the surviving members of Joy Division talking about having a look that "was modern by being retrospective", as if the paradox was interesting, and Morley connecting cultural fringes and Phil Oakey's lopsided haircut in the Human League.
There were some neat moments, though: prog-rockers juxtaposed with a bearded Open University physics lecturer talking about "boundary conditions". Jarvis Cocker, the cleverest man in pop, talked about the tyranny of the "pre-worn", clothes that signal you're too busy to live your own life and have to pay someone to do it for you. Tricky recalled asking Shaun Ryder why neither of them had won any Brit Awards, and being answered, "It's 'cause we're ugly, Tricky – not from the outside, from the inside." It had its flaws, but Morley was trying hard to think about the subject and say something concrete, rather than just falling back on an appeal to nostalgia. I suppose that is quite new.
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