TELEVISION / Just a deal away from making history

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The Independent Culture
IN 'Moscow Gold' (40 Minutes, BBC 2), a coach-load of British small-businessmen visited the new Russia. Unfortunately, at this point the new Russia wasn't quite finished. Boris Yeltsin still had a number of last-minute alterations to make to the White House building, most of them involving tanks and the routing of the Communist old guard, who were in there staging a sit-in. This rather changed the nature of the businessmen's trip: suddenly they found themselves negotiating their deals during intensive and politically significant military action, which doesn't often happen in, say, Luton.

Television documentaries don't strike much luckier than this. Even if Yeltsin hadn't sent the troops in, this would have been a funny story. Here were some of this country's finest men in suits - the very people who keep Trust House Forte and the Corby Trouser Press in existence - face to face with the new capitalist east, and looking to flog it a line of bright red overcoats, a range of plastic light fittings and a Dixie Fried Chicken outlet for St Petersburg. Lucky old St Petersburg.

The fact that the entire party booked into the Ukrainian Hotel and was thus afforded an unrivalled view of Yeltsin's bust-up can only lead one to conclude that the producer was tipped off by the Russian Secret Service. Christopher Hird, a business journalist, accompanied the trippers and gave the programme its sublimely understated voice-over, much of which, in these new lively circumstances, had the oblique daftness of the caption on a Glen Baxter cartoon. 'It was proving hard for Alan to research the market for plastic products,' he said, evenly.

It's probably fair to say that, if you're in business selling parts for an electrical switch company in Bedford, big moments in world history tend to take place in your absence. How do you cope, then, when politics explodes into life right across the road from your trouser press? Apparently, language is an early casualty: somehow, only cliches come to mind. 'Well, it's history in the making, I suppose,' said one of the party, resignedly, from behind his hand-held camcorder. But mostly, it seems, you continue as you were. Suddenly Yeltsin's troops were billeting in the hotel: everyone had to balance the implications for Europe with the fact that getting a table in the restaurant for breakfast was nigh on impossible.

Nick, touting for business for a clothing company, was straight on the phone to head office. 'The situation here militarily is out of control, but we are very much in control.' It would take more than government gunfire to throw him off the deal. Before things hotted up, he had been out to a Moscow department store to investigate, in depth, the mentality of the Russian consumer. A mother and daughter walked in. 'This is an interesting buying situation,' Nick informed us, quietly. 'Two generations have come to buy together . . . And now they're going towards the trousers . . . The price is being studied carefully, which is very interesting.' The message was: retailing - it's as fascinating over there as it is over here.

With all these details to pack in, the programme didn't really have space to give you a broader sense of Westernised Moscow. But to judge from the billboards we saw, there's an awful lot of chocolate going on. We weren't told what constituted chocolate in the former Soviet Union, but the chances are it was 48 percent wallpaper paste. Now, thanks to Yeltsin and his tanks, you can get Mars, Snickers, Wispa . . . Capitalism is for the strong of will and the sweet of tooth.

In Danielle Steel's Jewels (ITV), Anthony Andrews sauntered down some steps and said to Annette O'Toole, 'Cricket is the only game that can last for five days and still have no result.' Maybe, but mini-series come close. Incidentally, ITV was only able to send a tape of the first hour of last night's episode, and not of the further hour and a half that followed. You can't imagine how sad I am about that.

Thomas Sutcliffe is on holiday