"Universal history...is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here," wrote Carlyle.
And the less than great men, he might have added, modest biographies providing just as illuminating a window into the past as far grander figures. The principle was very entertainingly demonstrated by Michael Cockerell's film The Lost World of the Seventies, not an encompassing panorama, like Dominic Sandbrook's recent series about that tragicomic decade, but a study of four figures who were household names back then but would probably need an explanatory footnote these days for anyone under the age of 45. Cockerell ended his programme with David Bowie's "Heroes", hinting that we made our public figures out of grander stuff in the Seventies. That was pushing it a bit frankly, even though two of his subjects were heroes of a kind. But there was no question that they made good television, then and now.
That's one of the reasons Cockerell's films work so well. He knows where the archive is kept, and how effective it can be to flip between the past and the present. So his section on Sir Walter Walker, a retired general who briefly looked as if he might raise a private army to save the country from itself, featured Sir Patrick Mercer, both as a fresh-faced Sandhurst candidate and as the Tory MP he is now, blinking a little at the raw naivety of his younger self. Sir Walter, incidentally, enjoyed his brief spell in the sun after writing to the Telegraph warning that "the Communist Trojan Horse is in our midst with its fellow travellers wriggling their maggoty way inside its belly", a letter that did not lead to medical intervention but to a flood of support from like-minded readers. He set about organising a kind of Dad's Army against the enemy within, complete with a potential air force supplied by local flying clubs.
If there was a theme to these disparate lives it was a curious obsession with metaphors of hygiene. As well as Sir Walter's maggots, we had Lord Longford inveighing against "filth" as he investigated the porn industry, Sir Robert Mark trying to put a stop to the corruption of the Dirty Squad and Sir James Goldsmith fulminating about how Private Eye and its friends had been feeding the nation "pus". To put things right, he decided to sue the Eye for criminal libel, a charge that might have landed its then editor Richard Ingrams in prison. "My main fear was that of Lord Longford coming to visit me," he joked, rather helpfully pulling two separate components of the programme together.
Longford and Mark both came out of it rather well, even if there was a ruefully comic aspect to Gyles Brandreth's memories of the former being teased by a stark-naked sex-show performer who used her whip to stroke his bald pate. Both men risked contempt in the defence of values that were either unfashionable or impolitic and though Longford ultimately failed, Robert Mark's dogged determination to reform Scotland Yard did eventually pay off. He described himself as being "like a surgeon who had to cut out a major cancer without killing the patient", and from the screams the patient made at the time, he'd been forced to perform the operation without anaesthetic. It was a timely reminder of how relatively clean some of our sleaze is these days.
Starlings, Matt King and Steve Edge's new series for Sky1, is what you might call acoustic guitar comedy. You don't get a laugh-track, you get Bon Iver singing something plangent over a low-key (and slightly over-crowded) family drama. It is very sweet, which is both praise and blame, since the absence of sharp edge may not be to everyone's taste. "Need more warm," says one character as he shuffles off to top up his partner's birthing pool. No. Need more hot and cold.Reuse content