TELEVISION / There ain't nothing like a cartoon dame

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Verity Lambert must enjoy living dangerously. As if the challenge of launching a three-times-a-week soap wasn't enough, she went and called it Eldorado, presenting journalists with an all-you-can- eat buffet of easy jokes. Now she takes on the thankless task of employing an actress, Joanna Lumley, whose career has just been revived by an acclaimed character role in a comedy hit on another channel - an open invitation for invidious comparisons. That isn't hazard enough, though. Just to spice things up she calls the series Class Act (ITV). Had she walked into the Groucho Club wearing a sign saying 'Kick Me', she couldn't have done more to solicit media sniping.

So, no jokes about the title then, which is actually not a bad summation of the central conceit - high-born dame with low- life manners survives by acting the part. And Joanna Lumley is made for it, capable of little bouts of snarling that inevitably look like curtain calls for Absolutely Fabulous but also convincing at the aristocratic hauteur. Last night's opening episode contrived to match her up with a cowardly hack and a young Australian cat-burglar, by means of a cheerfully nonsensical plot involving disappearing husbands, assassins and casual explosions in some of London's plusher streets. It has something of the comic-book indifference to reality of The Avengers - the sort of drama in which the off-stage destruction of a vintage car will invariably be followed by a solitary spoked wheel rolling back round the corner, a cartoon shorthand for disaster.

The trick to such things is shameless flair. Lumley has this, I think. The challenge of the role doesn't rise much above the level of forfeits in a party game (play sexy, play the bitch) but party games can be fun if people enter into the spirit of the thing, and she does. The script, on the other hand, has a definite air of awkwardness. Some of it is crafted properly (Lumley describes her husband's mistress as 'a little mattress with an extensive knowledge of expensive ceilings') but other lines are dreadfully botched, as if a tea-break has been called mid-script and they've forgotten to finish the job. 'I wouldn't be seen dead in the same cemetery as you', for example, or 'You have as much backbone as a Frenchman'. As witticisms, those haven't even been given a preliminary sanding, let alone a final

polish.

I didn't intend to write about Beloved Country (BBC 2) again, but 'Wild Boer' was simply too good to pass without mention. Like some of the other films in Christopher Terrill's series, it had an almost fictional purity in the way it presented the tectonic shifts of South African society. Last night's account of Billy Minnie, a stubborn Old Testament Afrikaner trying to establish a separatist community, carried strong echoes of Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, a powerful account of how a flight from perceived evil can turn poisonous. The biblical certainties of Afrikaner thinking, the sense of destiny that Eugene Terre-Blanche manipulates with his kitsch rhetoric, was played here in diminished form.

But Terrill's great strength is his refusal to judge. You could view this as you wanted - a tragedy of ignorance, a depiction of the roots of genocide, or a dark comedy of racial pretensions - a latter- day Great Trek in which the noble Boer finds it impossible to live without a washing-machine. But Terrill doesn't point a finger with his camera, doesn't hand down judgement before all the facts are in. This makes the tiny cracks in the carapace all the more moving.

Most remarkably, he has filmed a society changing its mind, an almost invisible process which could only be revealed by Terrill's stop-motion technique of filming in bursts over a year. By the end of this film, Minnie's wife, who had earlier talked with relish of her desire to kill all blacks, was conceding that 'rationally we're all the same' and that she could bring herself to smile at them now. Not light enough to see by, really, but after an hour of defiant hatred it was as if the sun had come out.

Comments