TELEVISION REVIEW / War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Bob is funny

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The Independent Culture
I DON'T know what George Orwell would have made of it: in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Room 101 was the epitome of a tyranny's ability to break down all moral resistance, a site for the abject surrender of the human will. Faced with a rodent face-pack - the thing he most fears in the world - Winston Smith gibbers out his final betrayal: 'Do it to Julia.' In 1994, Room 101 (BBC 2) is a parlour game, in which celebrity guests nominate their particular pet hates. Last night Bob Monkhouse started the series off by saying, 'Do it to Cilla.'

My own nomination for Room 101 would be the attack culture that gives rise to the series in the first place - that increasingly tedious fashion for intellectual aggression which means that whenever two or three journalists are gathered together and stuck for an idea, some dumb cluck will say, 'I know, let's invite some celebrities to list the things they really hate.' At a more elevated level (well, slightly anyway) it leads to J'Accuse, Channel 4's factory for synthetic controversies; in terms of entertainment it produces that overworked seam of stand-up, the 'The thing I can't stand is . . .' monologue, a mode which can so easily turn into rancid superiority.

The Eltonesque style of comedy is mostly associated with a new wave of comics, rather than old troupers like Monkhouse, which made for some interesting little quivers of tone in last night's opener. He had already proved, in a sharp and funny appearance on Have I Got News for You, that he is a comic amphibian, able to haul himself out of the syrup and on to dry land. Very dry, in that case. Here too he was moving between environments. 'Labour pains set to music' was how he described Cilla's admittedly gruesome rendering of 'Step Inside Love', a joke that wore jeans. But he continued with a gag that had come into town for the day from summer stock on Worthing Pier: 'She's been delighting audiences for 20 years,' he said. 'Been in the business 30.'

He was funny, though, despite the slightly uncanny sense that he is being worked by remote control - his eyebrows rise and fall with a mechanical smoothness, and between jokes his face goes dead, as if all the little motors animating that leatherette mask have been thrown into neutral. And the series itself is enjoyable enough too, providing a framework for some ghastly clips and sour-sweet nostalgia.

Hate got a far less engaging outing on Channel 4, which is dedicating itself to a season of programmes on the conflict in Northern Ireland. It's a brave venture, partly because for many British viewers the whole subject would be a prime candidate for Room 101, partly because it is an area with no neutral ground.

Watching the first programmes, you found yourself preternaturally alert to the ways in which language might give a clue to a speaker's allegiances. In Beyond the Troubles, Brian Keenan (a polished, arresting performer on television) described how 'British troops entered the province in an attempt to stifle an impending explosion of sectarian fire', and you had to wait to the end of the sentence before that explosive 'stifle' was safely defused.

Most striking of all, on this first night, was Loved Ones - tiny memorial programmes in which relatives recalled some of those who had been killed, restoring some grief to the numb statistics. They were brief lives in all senses, two minute vignettes in which treasured snapshots aged the subjects towards their early deaths. If all 3,379 of those killed since the Troubles began received the same brisk remembrance, the film would run for four days and 16 hours unbroken.