The Kennedys, BBC2, Friday
James May's Things You Need to Know, BBC2, Monday
Bobby's the best of a pretty grim bunch in this disappointing depiction of an American dynasty
Sunday 26 June 2011
The chequered history of The Kennedys – the TV mini-series, rather than just the family – is already well known.
Originally commissioned by the History Channel, it was dropped by the station in January this year. The producers and director argued indignantly that every episode had been vetted for accuracy, and approved, by the top brass at History TV; they hinted darkly that its banishment was due to the disgust of influential family friends at its unflattering portrayal of the Irish-American dynasty as a corrupt, bribe-dispensing, complacent gang of priapic and amoral upstarts.
Seeing its first episodes, one wonders if the objections might be simpler than that. Maybe they just couldn't stomach such a rich chronicle being given such cheap production values and such a tacky script.
Early episodes showed the transformation of JFK from a mumbling dweeb to a master rhetorician simply by his spotting an army widow weeping in the third row and talking to her. ("They liked him because he spoke from the heart.") His chronic priapism was signalled by the subtle advances of a blond Monroe-esque PR. ("And if there's anything else you need, I'm Cynthia ...") Despite Jackie's mother's warnings ("He'll never be faithful, not for a single day") they are married, off-screen ("They're calling it the wedding of the century" grates her new father-in-law), and soon Jack is roused from his slumbers to be told by the kids, "Wake up, Mister President".
Friday's episode offered more of this risibly clichéd gallop through American history with JFK facing his first challenge: the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Contrasting the doomed offensive (in brief, all-purpose war footage) with the President's glitzy schmoozing at a White House reception, it balanced Kennedy's liberal worries against a gung-ho general ("Sir, we have a Communist bastard not 90 miles from our shore") who failed to factor into his invasion plans the foreseeable obstacle of a full moon. But Jack humbly informed the nation he'd screwed up, and soon was looking at an 80 per cent approval rating.
This is comic-strip, sub-Wikipedia history with a side order of boys-will-be-boys hagiography. Equally troubling is the production design: now that we're used to Mad Men, The Kennedys, like its hero's girlfriends, looks cheaply mounted. Even the Oval Office boardroom seems to have been bought from Ikea in the sales.
Greg Kinnear is physically well cast as the golden boy of Camelot without ever hinting at either the charm or the moral depth of JFK: the same toothachey grimace of irritable concern creases his boyish face whether he's pondering the fate of US troops on a Cuban beach or phoning an available horizontale when he can't sleep. The wardrobe department have kitted out Katie Holmes, as the famously stylish Jackie, in unflattering frocks before and after her ascension to First Lady. After an initial burst of sophomoric sassiness, she's settled into a one-note performance of sulky gloom as though rehearsing for the funeral. Tom Wilkinson (born in Leeds) is excellent as Joe Kennedy Snr, radiating hard-won political nous and 18-carat unscrupulousness. The one to watch, however, is Barry Pepper, who played the ace sniper in Saving Private Ryan. His Bobby is a family man, bullied by his dad into playing a part in government. Once there, he grows convincingly into a hard-ass when confronted by generals and J Edgar Hoover, following a similar moral trajectory to Al Pacino's in The Godfather. The show won't impress anyone keen on historic subtlety, but I'll be back to see how they portray Frank Sinatra in Part Four.
If The Kennedys was history-lite, James May's Things You Need to Know was biology-ultralite. The Top Gear presenter with the hairstyle and clothing sense (the floral shirts! the cable-knit jumpers!) of my lesbian Aunt Madge used graphics, Victorian cut-outs and similar comical accessories to take his audience through procreation (the competitive racing sperm were very Top Gear-ish,) genetics, digestion, excretion, human bugs ("The human body is a walking zoo of bacteria and parasites"), tapeworm, the common cold, teenagers ("80 per cent of teen skin is like pizza"), hangovers, ageing and death – all in half an hour. May is a reassuring cove, and delivered his talk from the depths of a leather armchair, like a family doctor. But who was it meant for? Adults would have found it banal, teenagers a bit condescending – and would the 11-year-olds who were its natural audience have been around to watch it at 10pm?
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