TELEVISION / And your ghost for this evening is . . .

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A few weeks ago on BBC 1, several viewers reported a sighting of a programme about paranormal phenomena. It was called Out of This World, and it vanished as noiselessly as it had appeared. Providing the clearest evidence yet that the populist channels are haunted by a spirit that passes editorial ideas between one another, the programme has suddenly reappeared on ITV. It may have a new name and a different presenter, but otherwise it conforms in every respect to the behaviour of the previous apparition. Where will this show strike next? You might have to invest in a dish to find out.

Strange But True? opened with a shot of Michael Aspel, the ghost of a host who slaughtered his own chat show, pulling a hardback from a shelf in a well-furnished library in some stately home. The set-up spoke of class, finesse, taste. Unfortunately, the script spoke of dog-eared paperbacks.

'They say truth is stranger than fiction,' intoned Aspel. 'Well, is it?'

There's no witty answer to that.

The stories themselves grabbed you by the lapels, particularly that of Chris Robinson, whose dreams, once decoded, appear to predict disaster. In every case he tries to do something about it. What the programme refused to confront is the semantic contradiction involved in preventing a premonition from coming true. Either something is going to happen or it isn't. Or is it?

Whatever, at this primetime of the evening, you don't flush precious minutes down a toilet called 'philosophical discussion'.

In the case of a terrorist bomb scare which Robinson foresaw at RAF Stanmore, precaution was possible, if not infinitely so: once they'd established that his local constabulary use him as a bona fide contact, the RAF doubled their guard for a week, only for the terrorists to strike a month later.

This put Robinson in a delicate position, because he wants his unremittingly dire dreams to come true (so no one thinks he's a nutter), but not too true.

He only attended the airshow where he knew two Russian planes would collide because he was safe in the knowledge that his dreams predicted the pilots' survival. This must be a first: a soothsayer who is also a voyeur.

The case of Dan Eldon, the photographer who was murdered in Somalia, is more troubling. Ignoring the unexplained oddity of a dream that gives out names and addresses, if Eldon had known about and acted on the warning Robinson gave his mother that he was in mortal danger, the premonition would have been self-unfulfilling, and where would that have left the dreamer? If they ever make Robinson's story into a movie, the blurb on the poster will be: 'He tried to mess with the future.'

After that story it was back to Aspel: 'I predict a break now, and then the poltergeist that strikes a family in Wales.' The crude mechanics of commercial television, in which what you watch is funded by what you buy, have seldom been so brazenly acknowledged.

Ellen (C4) is the umpteenth American comedy to fly over on a mission to put British models to the sword. Nor is it the first to name itself after its star - this time Ellen DeGeneres, recently voted the funniest Stateside stand-up, whose character opens her mouth more than is good for her. When the product itself is so intelligent, why is the audience assumed to be so stupid that it will only be drawn to something so flagrantly flagged? If Paris (C4) was titled Alexei, it would be even more risible than it already is.

The scenario is not the newest on the block - four pals, three of them women, laugh with and at one another about sex, style and 'the support of friends dynamic'. The worst that any of them can say about one of the girls' new boyfriend is that he irons his jeans. (Guilty, m'lud). And that he barks in certain intimate situations. When the idea 'created by' Neal Marlens, Carol Black and David Rosenthal was pitched to the executives, they would have sold it as 'Thirtysomething throws out the baby and learns to snigger'.