TELEVISION REVIEW / Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside

BLACKPOOL has always been a favourite for film-makers - melancholy laid out on a stall, as readily available as seaside rock. Such mournful contrasts at every turn - the sad festivity of coloured lights against that chilly, chocolate sea; fairground music echoing into plangency; the sense of all those factory workers clocking on to work the machinery of fun. But in the past there was at least a notion that there might be some dignity in all of this. You were given a good example in Dream Town (BBC 2), which included archive footage of an old documentary about the seaside town.

The narrator draped himself over the prom railings and mused with sentimental condescension about 'people who call their midday meal dinner, not lunch' (not the sort of people who owned televisions, obviously). The implication was that Blackpool represented an unusually pure notion of pleasure, that the very simplicity of its delights could give more sophisticated observers a frisson of regret for their lost innocence.

No such sentimentality now, or at least a harsher tone taken with illusions. Mark Kidel's film was subtitled 'A Brief Anatomy of Blackpool', a phrase which might once have conveyed a Donald McGill snigger, naughty but nice. Here it sounded more like an autopsy, the town laid out like one of the gruesome admonitory exhibits in the House of Wax ('Kidney of a drunkard' and waxwork impressions of industrial accidents). Certainly David Thewlis, who returned to his home town to act as a guide, expressed his affection in ways that may not have pleased the local Chamber of Commerce. 'I love it here,' he said. 'Everything here is cheap and nasty.' Blackpool, he argued with a smile, appeals to the most bestial side of people, a verdict that was endorsed by a quick pan across a line of novelty hats: the jolly impudence of 'Kiss Me Quick' has soured into 'Cucumbers Are Better Than Men', sexual invitation into sexual insult. They don't exhibit Siamese twins anymore but you get miniature Chippendales instead, a dwarf bumping and grinding in clouds of dry ice.

There were some defenders: a genial circus ringmaster explaining the advantages of budgies as an entertainment medium and the manager of the waxworks, gamely defending her unrecognisable attractions (the Queen appeared to have been modelled on Gerald Ford). Come on in, they said, the water's lovely - but to most viewers it must all have appeared as cold and dirty as the sea lapping along the front.

Philippa Lowthorpe's film, Three Salons at the Seaside (BBC 2), took the chill off you again, adopting a more old-fashioned eye. It was occasionally a touch too deliberate in its attempt to construct a sense of style - there are only so many times you can pan in giant close-up over a row of hair curlers before they begin to go to work on your toes. But, though she was fond of making patterns with her camera and of high crane shots, too, Lowthorpe didn't set up the women she filmed and never looked down on them either.

The dialogue was all - a gossipy account of mortality and frailty played to that peculiar Northern counterpoint of old ladies encouraging each other to talk: 'yes, mmm, yes, ah huh, oh yes?, hmmm.' Most of them appeared to have survived their husbands, preserving favoured hairstyles as an act of remembrance, in the teeth of fashion and the Blackpool winds. The salons themselves are confessionals with hairdryers, a source of consolation and solidarity in a world that seems filled with hernias and colostomies, bypass operations and rest- homes. You could almost feel the lacquer-scented warmth.

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