Last Night's TV: One for the collection of Auntie's bloomers
Fashion Versus The BBC, BBC4
Dodi al-Fayed: What Really Happened, Channel 4
Friday 23 January 2009
"What's the point," asked Colin McDowell at the start of Fashion versus the BBC, "of a programme showing how the BBC has glorified, missed the point, ignored, misunderstood fashion over the last 50 years?"
Well, quite, but once we started asking what the point of television programmes is, there'd be no end; might as well get on with it. And to be fair, there is a case to answer here: the BBC has always been very poor at talking about fashion (though to be fair, so have most other broadcasters), and it's worth asking why.
One answer was mentioned early on in this programme: until comparatively recently, the BBC was a very masculine organisation, and fashion was deliberately eschewed as girly and flighty and ephemeral, to be covered only in the most mocking, condescending terms. We were shown plenty of evidence of this, from Alan Whicker being sarcastic at the expense of San Francisco hippies, to Derek Nimmo, television's favourite upper-class twit, wandering down to Chelsea to poke fun at Vivienne Westwood's bondage trousers.
But having made that point, it was amazing how many other points the programme missed. A piece of footage from the late Fifties showed would-be "model girls" being trained to walk with books on their heads. "They were turning them into dolls," McDowell fumed, apparently missing the point that the training they were being given was that previously reserved for debs – the big difference from now is that girls were being taught to project class, not sex. Film of Alan Whicker commenting sardonically on hippies in San Francisco prompted a complaint that the BBC hadn't sent somebody like Mary Quant over to represent "the new Britain", as though journalism is somehow a form of diplomacy, and as though wit and articulacy are irrelevant.
There were some good things here: you could sympathise with the producers' inability to take their eyes off the photographer Norman Parkinson, with his bald pate and military moustache, telling models "Good girl, good girl" in tones you might use to train a not terribly bright retriever (though I was a little surprised to hear the pundits talk as though this was horrifying behaviour, as though no photographer today would ever objectify or patronise a model). McDowell regarded Nimmo's enquiry into punk style as "obscene" condescension. I thought Peter York got it right, pointing out that Nimmo was a completely self-invented character, and that Westwood and the punks probably liked him for it. (I've always enjoyed the fact that Nimmo went to Quarry Bank, the school that also produced John Lennon and Jimmy McGovern.)
What was really disappointing was the way the programme slipped into what is now television's standard narrative of cultural history, in which the staid Fifties are succeeded by the Swinging Sixties, which in turn give way to punk, then the new romantics, and Vivienne Westwood is the only fashion designer of any consequence not just in this country but in the whole world. If you were really going to talk about fashion and what the BBC missed, why not mention designers such as Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld? Why not, when you're doing the late Seventies and early Eighties, mention American Gigolo and the rise of Armani, a look that was taken up by more people than any amount of new romantic tartan-and-lace tat?
The programme ended with a somewhat equivocal assessment of the era of Trinny and Susannah – good to start with, was the general verdict. Rather weirdly, Susannah cropped up a few minutes later on Dodi Al-Fayed: What Really Happened, on Dodi's hugely impressive list of celebrity girlfriends. The catalogue also included Brooke Shields, Julia Roberts, Marie Helvin, Tania Bryer, Valerie Perrine, Britt Ekland, Koo Stark, Winona Ryder, Joanne Whalley, and Daryl Hannah. "They were all tall, blonde," his personal assistant said, completely incorrectly.
I had assumed this film was going to be all conspiracy-versus-cock-up theories, but Dodi's end was hardly mentioned. Instead, Jacques Peretti was more interested in what sort of person Dodi was. The answer – which Peretti gamely tried to pretend was some sort of revelation – was that he was a rather weak man, dominated by his bullying father, that he floated through life aimlessly, deprived of a proper role. Peretti didn't spot the irony here, that for Diana, Princess of Wales this was hardly a change of pace from what she was used to. His one flickering success came in his film career – he was an executive producer on the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire – and a Hollywood producer friend confirmed that he had a genuine talent for persuading people to invest in a story; but even here he had to get his ideas past his dad. The best moment came when Peretti contacted Mohamed al-Fayed's office and was promised cooperation as long as the film made it clear that Dodi was not a voracious cocaine user, among other things – as Peretti said, in effect giving him a checklist of rumours to investigate.
As it happened, all Dodi's friends denied ever having seen him use drugs, except for the Hollywood guy who talked of him floating in a cloud of white dust, and said, "Coke gave him a personality." Most remembered him with seemingly genuine affection: "He was a kind man, he was funny. He always picked up the cheque." It's hard to think of a more dismal epitaph.
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