Last Night's TV - Prince Philip at 90, ITV1; Four Rooms, Channel 4; Secrets of the Superbrands, BBC3
He needed to dig a bit deeper
Wednesday 25 May 2011
Prince Philip's every move provokes intense interest," said Alan Titchmarsh in
Prince Philip at 90. Not in this house it doesn't, I thought grumpily. Gyles Brandreth (biographer by appointment) might think of him as "impatient, questing and dynamic", but by and large I manage to get from one end of the year to the other without thinking about him at all. And when I realised that Titchmarsh was going to be fronting up ITV's profile of Britain's longest-serving Royal Consort my spirits sank even lower. If you were seeking to replicate the unctuous servility of a Fifties newsreel you really couldn't start anywhere better – and one of Titchmarsh's early script lines ("The Duke of Edinburgh shows little sign of slowing down") seemed to suggest that that was exactly what the producers were aiming for.
Naturally, it couldn't be quite as bad as I'd feared, even though it was hardly a forensic appraisal of the Duke's character, the tone neatly set by Brandreth again, who cited Napoleon's belief that if you want to understand a man you should look at the world as it was when he was 20. "All that is best of Britain in 1940 is exemplified in Prince Philip in 2011," he said. Or rather all that is best about the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburgs, that being the fiercely tangled ducal House into which Philip was born. No wonder he was nicknamed Phil the Greek instead.
It sounds to have been a confusing childhood. "We lived in quite a small house," the man himself recalled, as an archive shot of a substantial French mansion revealed that these things are always relative. At a fairly young age he was sent to boarding school in Cheam, while his mother was admitted to a sanitorium suffering from a religious breakdown and his father buggered off to the south of France with a mistress. And after that he doesn't seem to have encountered his parents much at all, his only source of nurturing tenderness being Gordonstoun School and a formidable-looking grandmother.
There was a great deal of the hushed bollockery that seems to be the invariable result of any contact between British broadcasters and members of the Royal Family. But there were saving graces – most notably the clipped bits of interview with Prince Philip himself, which didn't exactly prove, but did hint at, a sharper mind than he's often given credit for. "Prince Charles is a romantic and I am a pragmatist and sometimes a romantic thinks that a pragmatist is unfeeling," he once replied to Brandreth, when he was asked about his relationship with his eldest son – a formulation that answered a hard question with some finesse. And I liked his dead bat to Titchmarsh's question about whether he had any regrets: "I'd rather not have made the mistakes I did make..." he said, and then, after an expectant pause, "I'm not going to tell you what they are."
Channel 4's Four Rooms is a kind of Dragon's Den for overpriced bric-a-brac. People who think they have a treasure to sell get the opportunity to pitch its virtues to four of "Britain's top dealers" (presumably from the same pool where The Apprentice finds "Britain's finest business talent"). The sellers can then choose which order to take bids, the catch being that once they've turned down an offer they can't go back. The dealers all strike you as variations of Harry Enfield's "I Saw You Coming" character – chaps in Rupert Bear suits with characterful glasses who sell overpriced curios to Chelsea housewives. And the first item reinforced that impression: a Francis Bacon painting that had been comprehensively vandalised by the artist, because he was unsatisfied by its quality. It consisted of a frame and a few scraps of canvas, but the guy who'd bought it for £4,000 still managed to talk a dealer called Emma up to £48,000. The point of the thing, I guess, is the poker game of offer and counter-offer, and the possibility that someone might turn down a great offer in favour of a lousy one.
There are no polite words to describe Jeff Salmon, the most self-consciously "characterful" of the dealers, though if I tell you that he introduced himself with the words "I'm known as a maverick", you may get the rough gist. And if you wondered how a man this crass and self-regarding could make a living at anything, you soon got your answer. A man who'd spent £15,000 on a collection of Princess Di Christmas cards accepted Jeff's offer to settle the deal with a dice – £10,000 if he shook an odd number and £25,000 if he shook evens. "Those are good odds," he said, dim-wittedly. He lost. Jeff supplied the dice.
Secrets of the Superbrands doesn't contain many secrets for anyone who knows anything about modern consumer culture. But it does contain Alex Riley, a likeable and funny presence on screen. His report on the absurdities of fashion branding included a visit to the Indian factory where poor people are paid to damage and distress jeans so that wealthy people will pay a premium for them – an End Time folly so grotesque that it must surely feature in the Book of Revelation. He also poked fun at Abercrombie & Fitch, a repulsive chain that has made a fortune by applying sophomoric cliquishness to the world at large. I saw you coming, these brands say to their devotees, and now you're going to pay through the nose. By the end I was beginning to feel like Prince Philip after a four-hour native-dancing show.
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