Last Night's TV: My Zinc Bed BBC2
Who Do You Think You Are? BBC1
Love on the rocks – and it's no surprise
Thursday 28 August 2008
Einstein successfully predicted that a massive heavenly object would be able to bend light, in a process known as gravitational lensing. He didn't, as far as I know, fully explore the application of this theory to the field of television drama, but big stars can affect our observations here, too. To watch Uma Thurman in My Zinc Bed, David Hare's television adaptation of his own stage play, was to contend with a kind of distracting optical shimmer, in which the celebrity kept on threatening to blur the character she was playing. That's really Uma Thurman, you thought. Uma Thurman! – on the BBC – and jammy old Paddy Considine gets to snog her!
I'm not exactly sure who should get the credit for the fact that this effect didn't ultimately overwhelm Hare's drama. Hare himself would obviously be a leading contender for supplying a script that danced with implication and paradox. Jonathan Pryce would have a pretty good claim, too, for a performance that brilliantly demonstrated how understated screen acting can be and still draw you in. But perhaps the best reason was the fact that Thurman's character, Elsa, is supposed to exert attractive force over the men who encounter her. She is the gravitational centre of the piece, and unless she's got some kind of irresistible pull, it won't work.
This wasn't a drama that displayed any anxiety about theatricality, as television adaptations of stage originals sometimes do. It is, in fact, self-consciously melodramatic in its style. "In my own life, nothing that has happened, nothing that can happen, compares with the strangeness of a single summer," said Paul at the beginning, making a promise that the flashback scenes then fulfil, with their account of a strange game of temptation played out by Victor Quinn, Pryce's internet millionaire, and the penniless, ex-alcoholic poet he adopts as an emotional plaything. The voice-over narration and the sudden extravagant bursts of emotions sometimes gave it a melodramatic, film-noir feel, as if Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck had played these parts first time round, in a fever of black-and-white close-ups.
But where a noir film would have concluded with revealed mechanism, a plot crafted to reveal that all along there had only been one innocent and one victim, Hare's drama ended less tritely, reasserting its central paradox – that excluding addiction from your life may also mean excluding passion and intensity – without clearly spelling out who had done what to whom. There were scenes that seemed to present Victor as Mephistopheles, including a sequence in which he talked Paul through the preparation of a perfect margarita as his guest looked on with tortured longing. But there were also moments at which he seemed to be suffering from events that had run out of his control. And throughout, the dialogue teased and hinted in a way that is utterly alien to the plaintext clichés of most television drama. Paul's lost love in the play is a television actress. "She was a doctor in one of those series where they go to the laundry cupboards and make love," he explained at one point, and that brief reference to a different register of small-screen drama jolted you into a realisation of how unusual this kind of speech is on television. Instead of deploying clichés, it interrogated them. Instead of simply conveying information, it played with ideas. Instead of being thuddingly one-dimensional, it glanced in the light, as when Victor said: "You must say goodbye to Elsa, too, I insist", and we couldn't be sure whether he was being genial or admitting how much he knew about her affair. This isn't, incidentally, because theatre is inherently superior to telly. It isn't. It's simply because Hare is more interesting than most television writers. It was thrilling, anyway, as heady as a good stiff drink to someone who's been on the wagon for months.
In Who Do You Think You Are?, Jerry Springer explored his prematurely truncated family roots, travelling to Poland and Germany to find out what happened to the grandmothers he'd never known, both of whom died in Nazi concentration camps. His ignorance of history – both familial and European – was a little surprising. He hadn't heard of Theresienstadt at all, where he discovered that one of his grandmothers had died in the camp hospital, the thinnest of silver linings to an overwhelmingly black cloud, since it meant she hadn't had to endure the transports to Auschwitz. But even for viewers more familiar with the bureaucracy of extermination, there were moving revelations here. In a Gestapo document, Springer found a list of the possessions that had been confiscated from his grandmother at the time of her "resettlement", which even included the deposit money due to her from the gas account she'd been obliged to close. The murderers forgot nothing. Like many Jerry Springer programmes, it ended with a little homily from him about the importance of family, but this one was infinitely more heartfelt than most.
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