TELEVISION / Famous for less than fifteen minutes
Thursday 16 December 1993
Less careful hands would have brutalised the basic idea here and offered us a series called Celebrity Fridge-Freezer - predicated on the depressing notion that the most interesting thing about famous people is where they do their shopping. Or you can imagine a still more downmarket version - Celebrity Linen Basket. Here, we are asked to read the life in a selection of homely clutter, on the more appealing principle that you are what you keep.
To be pedantic for a moment, Powell's mantelpiece looked suspiciously like the top of a book shelf, rather than the full-blown fire-surround that the programme's title led you to anticipate. Then again, Celebrity Top of a Bookshelf wouldn't have had quite the same ring, and as this really was the place Powell stowed his toy aircraft and his old starfish and his model soldiers and his 'Greetings on St George's Day' card, then it's pointless to quibble.
The stop-watch with the Union Jack face looked interesting and so did the commemorative 'Enoch for Britain' plate, but the most poignant story attached to that starfish. Beachcombing as a child with his father, Powell had stooped to pick up the first starfish he came across. His father had told him not to bother because there would be plenty of others. It was the last starfish they saw that day. Powell seemed to be saying that this incident had crystallised for him into a serviceable attitude to life. 'There is only the one starfish,' he declared. Or in other words, gather ye cockles while ye may.
Talking as ever like someone translating fluently from the Latin, Powell said of his mantelpiece: 'It's a kind of limbo in which that for which there is no other place eventually finds itself.' Not unlike the 8.50pm evening slot on BBC 2, in fact. Still, the programme further confirmed that age and retirement are the best things that can happen to politicians. Suddenly they develop these wheezy laughs and sweetly far-away voices and seem almost savoury. As the credits rolled, Powell said he hoped that his appearance wouldn't cause people to post him further items for his collection. He must have had a vision of the Tiber foaming with much in the way of old starfish and unwanted 'Enoch for Britain' bric-a-brac.
Off the mantelpiece and into the fire. The closest most of us come to counter- terrorism is a brush with a frightening member of the till staff in the local supermarket. This week's States of Terror - Peter Taylor's deeply researched and slickly executed documentary series - went to Northern Ireland and came back with the real thing. The programme was big on clarity and detail. It would be difficult to get nearer to what it might be like to be an MI5 Agent, informing on the IRA, without actually signing up.
Taylor claimed to have had unique access to a working agent. He was labelled 'Steve' and his confessions were spoken by an actor. You could earn pounds 200 a month for providing your 'handlers' with the occasional tip-off about a Sinn Fein rally, or the odd list of names. But you would probably need some other motive than cash, given the risks. Around Steve's words was woven the story of Gregory Burns, who was shot dead in July last year and left beside the road under a bin-liner.
Burns campaigned 20 hours a day for Bobby Sands during the hunger strikes and was in so deep he even fooled his friends and family, some of whom still argue that he couldn't possibly have turned informer. But we heard him say so on the tape of his confession to the IRA, which it took Taylor a year to get hold of. This was a trickily meshed tale, hard-won and well-told.
Thomas Sutcliffe is on holiday
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