The beginning of what might have been

IT'S odd but I can remember exactly what I was doing when they announced that it was 25 years since Kennedy's assassination. I was watching television. Hours of it. Hours of portentous theorising, computer enhancements, unknown witnesses and brimming eyes, all making a case that everyone from Fidel Castro to Ronald McDonald had had a hand in that violent dissolution. Then things went quiet for a bit with only the odd Bobby Kennedy assassination documentary to keep your spirits down. Now 30 years have passed and it's time for another bout.

I didn't want to watch As It Happened - The Killing of Kennedy (C 4). The event has been autopsied so frequently that there's nothing left of the body but bits and it's an increasingly queasy business watching somebody rearrange them into a pretty shape. I'm glad I did, anyway, because George Carey's film wasn't about facts but feelings. There wasn't a flicker of theorising about the events - a truly heroic act of self-restraint. Instead of bullet trajectories you got an emotional reconstruction of that short time in which the killing congealed from awful rumour to undeniable fact.

The details were as startling as new forensic evidence, clues to the fear and uncertainty of the time. Nelly Connolly remembered how she sat in the front of the limousine while hospital workers fussed over the dead President, wondering how long protocol required her to wait before calling for assistance for her wounded husband. Chuck Behm, who'd taken time out from cooking a meal to see the President, was held by policemen who weren't sure whether he was a witness or a conspirator. He didn't calm them by asking to make a telephone call. We'll make it for you, they said. 'Call Mr Smith,' he asked them innocently, 'and tell him 'Turn off the oven, the meat is done'.' A press-secretary recalled the little scream Lady Bird Johnson gave when he went to ask Johnson's permission to release confirmation of Kennedy's death. His hesitant 'Mr President?' was how they learnt the news.

If you watch films like Oliver Stone's JFK or even Clint Eastwood's latest, In The Line of Fire, in which he plays a Secret Service agent who froze as the first bullet struck, you can see these events being transformed into masturbatory sentiment in front of your eyes; the assassination is a fantasy object, both the source of all existing political malaise and the perfect emblem for our personal versions of What Might Have Been. Carey's film couldn't entirely escape this accusation - it was designed to make you weep and the machine worked all too well.

But it was protected finally by its extraordinary cast of witnesses, men and women who still can't talk without a tremor about that day. Their sadness is understandable - they were the political next-of-kin - but their vivid memories forced you to think about why the rest of us still care. Because we know we couldn't mourn our own leaders so uncynically, I suspect, and because the death draws the dull muddle of history into mythic shape. Looking at those weeping people on the Dallas sidewalks don't we envy them the purity of their unanimous grief?

'It was a fine moment for our family,' said one woman, whose father had solemnly driven them to Washington for the funeral. It sounded odd but you knew what she meant. In death Kennedy did something he hadn't done in life (he went to Dallas because his popularity was slipping) - he proved to the most disparate citizens that they had something in common. In their shared mourning they sensed their better selves and Carey's film was true to that emotion.

The television writer Lynda La Plante has a laugh that makes Sid James sound decorous, and a strong stomach. Early in The South Bank Show (ITV) she was shown bent excitedly over somebody's dissected oesophagus, seeking forensic detail for Prime Suspect III. A little later the tape ran out, which is normally a secret relief for television reviewers. In this case, I was sorry to lose her company.