TELEVISION / Taking steps in the right direction

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The Independent Culture
'IT WAS always very difficult to know what was going on inside Cameron,' said the wife of Cameron Sharp, the Scottish sprinter whose slow road back to health after a road accident was chronicled in Personal Best (BBC 2). 'I would have said he was a sort of crab-like, shell-like creature.' Her words fitted what you saw on screen so perfectly - a hunched figure whose face appeared impassively detached from the struggle of his body to control itself - that it came as something of a shock to realise she was talking about what he was like before the accident.

Serious brain injuries had transformed him from a man who measured personal achievement in the fine calibrations of hundredths of a second to a man who simply wanted to be able to walk again. The ironies were obvious but no less moving for that. Jackie Bird's documentary could cut from images of his physical prowess on the track to the painful, frightening moment when he was lifted onto his emaciated legs for the first time since the accident - and his rapid, panicked breathing offered a sinister echo of a sprinter's preparatory puffing as he prepares to enter the blocks. The easy stroll through a post- event interview had given way to a stumbling search for words just out of reach.

Sport also provides a good metaphor for the dedicated tedium of healing, its tantalising blend of progress and disappointment. Sportsmen know how difficult it is to get better. More than one friend sought comfort in the fact, predicting that Sharp's tenacity in training, the determination he showed in wrestling for those tiny increments of improvement, would work for him in hospital too. Undoubtedly, his will harried his recovery but it was clear that his sporting experience may have made the process more painful. 'Athletes tolerate disability much less well than non-athletes,' a consultant neurologist observed. That may be the secret, of course - where the rest of us settle for what we can get, sportsmen trade pain for gain. Sharp's remark after he'd managed his first steps unaided had the soft jubilation of somebody who'd just taken gold - 'The walking's so sweet,' he whispered.

I think the reviewers have been slightly unfair to Ben Elton's Stark (BBC 2) over the last few weeks, though I'm a little hard-pressed to make a solid case for the defence. Having discovered that I was out of step with most of my colleagues I watched the next two episodes with some trepidation, fearing that I might have mistaken a turkey for a swan. I discovered that they were right in a lot of cases - Elton's acting style, an eye-rolling comic shtick designed to reach the back of big houses, does sit a little uneasily in the film and the script's consciousness is raised so high that do you get vertigo now and then.

But few enterprises are flawless and I couldn't shake an affection for the grand style of this one. Elton knows he's going wildly over the top with the conspiracy - that's part of the joke. 'You're trying to tell me that the American government sold the moon,' Rachel says incredulously as the full scope of the Stark conspiracy is revealed to her and we are invited to laugh at the chutzpah of the plot rather than fulminate over American perfidy.

I laughed a lot too, when I wasn't shifting uncomfortably in my pew. The Head of Security who has to exude terrifying menace despite a bulbously bandaged nose was a piece of slapstick that made me spill my tea and Elton often got in a sly gag on the run. 'We were really stuck for an item after the wombat died,' a television researcher explains to the American journalist trying to alert the world to its danger, a beautifully economic line, perfectly placed at the front of a scene.

It ended with a straight sermon - an itemization of ecological damage done in the three hours the story took to tell ('18,000 acres of rainforest have been destroyed for ever . . . 23 square miles of land became desert') but even that made me feel fond. So he spent pounds 3m getting the details right, so he wanted to say something he cared about. What do you want instead? Cheap, mindless entertainment?