What Cyclops doesn't see: Television
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 27 June 1999
She doesn't have to be the partner of a competitor. During Channel 9's coverage of Test matches in Australia, entire overs have been known to pass while the camera goes cleavage-hunting. But it is better if she is. At the football World Cup last summer, we saw more of Ronaldo's girlfriend than we did of Ronaldo. Whenever Tim Henman plays, there appears to be one camera trained on him, another on his lovely girlfriend, Lucy ("the daughter of a very eminent doctor indeed," said Threlfall, approvingly, during one viewing). The same is true of Boris Becker and his lovely wife Barbara. Yet curiously, this ritual does not embrace boyfriends and husbands. Somewhere in the world of television sport there must be a gay cameraman, or even a camerawoman, forlornly seeking out the hunks.
In the meantime, Wimbledon offers reassuring stability in a turbulent world. Apart from Tuesday's unusual spectacle of a British crowd willing a German, Boris Becker, to beat a Brit, Miles Maclagan, and the scarcity of even intermittent drizzle, it has been business as usual. And for veteran Wimbledon-watchers still missing the sight of Virginia Wade getting her toss-up horribly wrong, Steffi Graf has obligingly filled the void. But Graf is on her last legs, tennis-wise. And speaking of the remarkable Graf legs, the cameramen must be wondering what they will do without them. They tried focusing on the attractions of her compatriot Anke Huber, but somehow it wasn't the same.
Breasts also made an appearacne in Big Bad World (ITV) - rather disturbingly, being car-essed by Ardal O'Hanlon, still best known to most of us as Father Ted's brain-dead colleague Father Dougal. Big Bad World is yet another drama about a bunch of middle-class thirtysomethings, in which the married ones spend their lives trying to fix up the one who is frustratedly single. In a brazen attempt to pre-empt the obvious comparison, the script even referred to Peter's Friends, the smuggest of all dramas about a bunch of middle-class thirtysomethings etc. But Cold Feet trod similar ground, albeit more wittily. So did Wonderful You. It is surely time to inject a bit more imagination into contemporary drama, and to convince metropolitan writers and producers that they must look a little further than their own back yards - or rather, their lovely roof terraces - for inspiration.
As for O'Hanlon, I wasn't sure whether he was playing for laughs, and I don't think he was either. He is the latest in a long line of clowns who have tried to play Hamlet, and Elsinore is not always the place for them. Lenny Henry does it better, because he manages to suppress his comedy persona. In Hope and Glory (BBC1), he was convincing as a super-dooper head teacher, the Red Adair of morning assemblies, brought in to rescue a failing urban comprehensive. It was a shame and a surprise that Lucy Gannon's script - usually the most reliable of bases on which to build a drama - occasionally let him down.
The first episode of Hope and Glory was, as Blackadder might have said, cornier than the corniest corner of a box of cornflakes. For we knew within the first few minutes that Ian George (Henry) would accept the poisoned chalice of a job at Hope Park, even though he kept saying he wouldn't. In fact, the more he said he wouldn't, the more we knew he would. Similarly inevitable was The Speech That Makes Him Change His Mind, and my wife and I had bets on who would deliver it. In the end it came from a governor who had sworn over the body of his dead son to save the school. So, in a moment of cheesiness worthy of Hollywood itself, George strode heroically forward, just after Hope Park had waved a none-too-cheery farewell to - another inevitable touch - the embittered former head, a nervous wreck played - indeed, marginally overplayed - by Peter Davison.
Hope and Glory will have to go some to match another recent idealistic- teacher-tries-to-save-rotten-school drama, Jimmy McGovern's superb Hearts and Minds. At the moment it looks more like To Sir With Love, with nagging violin music in place of Lulu's vocals. Of course, Lenny Henry is no Sidney Poitier. He's not black, for starters. Not so as you'd notice. In To Sir With Love, race was the main issue. Mercifully, times have changed since the 1960s, yet as far as I could make out there was not a single reference, from pupils, teachers, governors or anyone else, to George's colour. Sadly, times haven't changed that dramatically.
Still, as my wife pointed out, when you live in Haringey, where the state schools are among the worst in the country, there is something irresistible about a yarn in which a bad school gets better. We will probably stick with Hope and Glory, but not with another new series, The Wedding (BBC1), which offered one of the most banal and dispiriting snatches of commentary I've heard for a long time: "There are only three days to go until the wedding, and Mandy and Dave have still to buy the rings." Oh, please. Not another documentary series about the Mandy and Daves of this world and their impending bloody nuptials. The critic's relationship with television is meant to exist for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, but there are limits.
But then one's faith in the medium is constantly being reaffirmed, never more so than by Malcolm and Barbara - A Love Story (ITV), the most affecting documentary of last week and arguably the last 100 weeks. Malcolm Pointon, an accomplished musician aged only 51, was diagnosed in 1992 as having Alzheimer's Disease, and the distinguished documentary maker Paul Watson chronicled his decline.
It was a heartbreaking film, but neither mawkish nor uncomfortably intrusive, as it might have been in the hands of a lesser director. It is bound to win mantelpiece-loads of awards, which will be of cold comfort to Barbara, a spectacularly devoted wife yet with reassuringly human frailties. In a reversal of the usual convention, I hoped against hope that it would end with Malcolm's death, but evidently the nightmare goes on. Cancer, said Barbara, would have been much better. At least that is a terrible journey two people can make together, whereas this is a journey they make separately. True, but that in turn will be of little consolation to the journalist John Diamond and his wife, Nigella Lawson, whose plight was covered in the previous week's updated Inside Story.
What, it has been asked, is the point of such documentaries? They win acclaim and awards but whose interests do they really serve? The answer is that they offer an insight into the human condition from a perspective usually enjoyed, if that is the word, only by doctors and nurses. For like the medics, we are involved yet detached. It is an extraordinary privilege, which we undervalue at our peril.
There is now, I find, very little space in which to comment on Aristocrats, BBC's lavish new costume drama. I shall return to it next week. Briefly, it is a story about posh young people in the mid-18th century searching for suitable husbands and wives. Everyone at court is fascinated by the spectacle. And as it was then, so it is now. Remember Bill Threlfall's words: "The daughter of a very eminent doctor indeed."
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