Last Night's Television - Timeshift: How To Win At Chess,BBC4; Michael Jackson: The Last Days, Five

All filler, no thriller
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The Independent Culture

The repeated programme is not by definition a bad thing. Judiciously scheduled, a repeat can indeed be a good thing. But last night, apart from the wodge of BBC2 and ITV1 primetime devoted to two mighty British institutions – the armed forces and Victoria Wood, and may the Almighty protect them both – there was worryingly little original programming. This might be the week in which we collectively consume enough Brussels sprouts and chestnut stuffing to sink the Ark Royal, but that doesn't mean we need our television channels repeating on us as well.

Among some decidedly meagre pickings, I chose to watch a documentary called Michael Jackson: The Last Days and almost immediately wished I hadn't. Seeing this hagiographical bilge through to the end was not an act of bravery and sacrifice such as those being celebrated at the Imperial War Museum in A Night of Heroes: Military Awards, but it was as close as you'll get from a TV critic. I watched it so that you didn't have to.

There is, undoubtedly, a decent documentary to be made about the strange life and death of "Wacko Jacko", but it was clear from the outset that this wasn't it. Bought in from the United States, Michael Jackson: the Last Days was part of the E! Investigates strand. E!, as you probably know, is America's "entertainment" channel. E! Investigates is thus an oxymoron. Even so, it was an achievement of sorts to come up with something quite so vacuous. The late John Grierson, generally considered to be the father of the documentary form, will be spinning so rapidly in his grave that Michael Jackson himself might envy the moves.

Actually, the thing was less a documentary than an exercise in editing-suite trickery. Footage was speeded up, and slowed down. Music throbbed throughout. Cutting was evidently left to a man with a chainsaw because even the talking heads scarcely got a word in edgeways, although in a way that was a blessing, because the little they did say was rarely worth saying. Some of the more piercing aperçus concerning the King of Pop included "he was truly one of the greatest artists of the latter portion of the 20th century" and "he was mourned around the world". I wrote a few more of them down but my pen ran out of ink, and frankly I couldn't blame it.

The contributors were mostly billed as "a Jackson family friend", that convenient caption so prevalent in rubbish documentaries, which always arouses the suspicion that the closest family connection of said family friend is his annulled marriage to the second cousin of the guy who installed the family's garage doors. Strangely, a disproportionate number of these contributors seemed to be called Randy. One who wasn't was called Majestik Magnificent, clearly not a fellow with self-esteem issues. Like everyone else interviewed, Majestik Magnificent thought Jacko was a swell guy. A child molester? Not on your nellie. A drug addict? Well, possibly, but only to dull the physical pain he had to endure. Did his personal physician, Dr Murray, bump him off? Maybe, maybe not. I was no wiser at the end of the programme than I had been at the beginning, except insofar that I knew I would never again subject myself, even on behalf of Independent readers, to E! Investigates anything.

Desperate for a bit of stimulation, I turned to How to Win at Chess, a film in the Timeshift strand. A programme about chess might not be the most obvious sanctuary for someone in need of televisual resuscitation, but surprisingly, it was a corker, with contributions from Martin Amis, Dominic Lawson and nobody called Randy.

I learnt to play chess almost 40 years ago, and formed an affection for it at grammar school, albeit largely because it offered an escape route from being herded into the assembly hall during wet dinner times. If you were a chess club member you could go and sit in the comparative comfort of room 7, although if you didn't wear NHS glasses and your trousers weren't two inches too short, you were suddenly in a minority.

How to Win at Chess didn't altogether puncture this nerdy image, but it was pleasing to find that the British junior champion is not only female but also a bit of a babe, and there was a nice clip of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson sitting down to a game in Bottom. "Two guys, no chicks," said Mayall. "It's just man to man. Cultured. Urbane. Civilised. Male stuff. Just one more thing. How do you actually play chess?"

I might once have felt able to show him, but if this programme taught me anything it was that after all these years I'm still a novice. I knew nothing of the Hippopotamus or the Hedgehog opening, and if ever I have deployed the Dragon variation of the Sicilian Defence then it can only have been by accident. I now intend to tempt one of my sons to sit down with me over Christmas, although when I talk about Hippos and Dragons, he'll be expecting me to reach for an X-box 360, not the chessboard.