Television (Review): When loose ends slip through sweaty palms

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The Independent Culture
WE'RE MAKING a film which is very much a travel film,' explained John Sweeney to the man who runs Osijek, a character recently described by another journalist as 'a serial killer in fatigues'. This was not exactly candid, although you couldn't really blame him for it. The man behind the desk was responsible for setting up the International Brigade, a nasty assemblage of foreign adventurers and mercenaries who fought on the Croatian side, and Sweeney was investigating what he believed were two murders - the death of a Swiss journalist, Christian Wertenberg, and of the photographer Paul Jenks.

In any case, Osijek's head man didn't look as if he expected to talk about local swimming facilities and Croatian nightlife. As they rolled out of town for a guided tour of the front lines, he popped a grenade on the dashboard and pulled out his automatic pistol.

In one sense Sweeney had been telling the truth - his film was the first of Travels with My Camera (C4), a series in which writers are accompanied by a Hi-8 video camera and someone to hold it up. But for Sweeney it was less important to travel hopefully than to arrive - the particular destination he had in mind being a solution to the mystery of Paul Jenks's death. The Croats claimed Jenks had been killed by a Serb sniper during a visit to the front line. Sweeney believed he might have been shot because he had been asking questions about the death of Wertenberg, who had apparently gone undercover to investigate the International Brigade.

If I were starting from that position, I would go in the other direction, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, which I guess is why I am not a war reporter. Sweeney himself didn't look particularly happy while negotiating the empty highways and bland farmland which formed the Croatian front.

The Hi-8 camera proved a good device for capturing nervousness on film, ducking its head down whenever they approached a checkpoint and hovering outside rooms as ugly men waved threateningly in its direction. When Frenchie Hancock, an unpleasant Welsh mercenary, threatened to kill Sweeney for an earlier piece he had written, it recoiled across the hotel lobby as if in fright. And though there are still set- pieces to camera, they can follow very rapidly on the incidents that provoked them, catching rattled people before the emotions have settled.

There's no great credit in owning up to sweaty palms anymore - it's become one of the cliches of front-line journalism, a form of accreditation for the contemporary writer. But there is credit in not tidying up your story, smoothing its contours to a more satisfying curve, and Sweeney deserves that. At first he had been sceptical about the Serb sniper theory, taking the view that the distance was simply too great. After he had travelled to the Serb side and stared through a sniper's telescopic sight he conceded that it was possible after all, a detail that withdrew the possibility of simple revelation, but left you feeling there was at least one person you could trust in this territory of half-truths, half-spoken.

Peter Cook was very funny on Room 101 (BBC 2), though I couldn't really tell you how. Sometimes he gets a belly laugh just by drawling 'I can't stand it', elsewhere there's more agility involved. He shares with Paul Merton (or the other way around, if you want to get fussy about precedence) an ability to leap much further than you expected without showing a trace of the effort on his face - as when a diatribe about bunnies' pink eyes leads to his matter-of-fact concession that 'the only place a rabbit looks really good is in a disco'.