Thomas Sutcliffe

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Television Review

THE IMAGE on screen is a familiar one - a bare brown foot stomping rhythmically in the African dust. If you watch television regularly, you'll have seen this countless times because it has virtually become a registered trademark for the otherness of Africa - a way of taking its primal pulse. It occurred quite a few times in "The Mission", Clive Gordon's film for the True Stories (C4) strand about the murderous activities of the Lord's Resistance Army, and it occurred at considerable length, too - taking the view that the vision of the documentary film-maker should not be confined by the blinkers of conventional scheduling slots. True Stories lasted an hour and a half, and, like several other films in the current season, it forced you to think quite hard about the virtues and vices of length. This is a kind of blasphemy on television, where an induced forgetfulness about the clock is usually the desired goal.

Television Review: Ally McBeal

"DO YOU ever worry about being sexually adequate," one man asks another in the executive washroom. "No," the other replies, "I know I'm good". "How?" the first one says plaintively. "Cos I'm always satisfied," says the other blithely. "It's good for me." And then, in a perfect grace note to this vignette of male egotism, he lobs his paper towel into the bin and whispers an exultant "Yesss!" The man in question is Ally McBeal's (C4) cheerfully amoral boss, something of a hero of mine as the only character in the series who never wastes his time (or ours) interrogating his motives - he doesn't really need to as they are green all over and carry pictures of American presidents.

Television Review

EQUINOX'S documentary about the 10 Plagues of Egypt (C4) did not take an entirely conventional line in its depiction of scientists. Curtis Molloy, for example, a kind of intellectual matchmaker who brought together the many disciplines involved in "solving the mystery", was shown at one point juggling green plastic frogs - which he did competently enough to eke out a living on the sidewalks should he ever run out of research money. Other contributors appeared in gothic settings - a breeze would be blowing curtains through an open window or the camera frame would be weirdly skewed. There were stuttering montages of apparently unconnected images and also uncanny projections - in one, a mud house in Egypt provided the screen for magnified film of stable flies, a luminous infestation which overwhelmed the mundane architecture. More than just a dab of The X Files behind the ears, then, but there was a point to the style, besides the director having fun on a modest budget. Bill Eagles's film began with a Rabbi Avi Weiss insisting that the biblical account of the 10 plagues was a description of a real event. As it happens, his view was shared by Dr John Marr, a scientist who viewed the story as a "classic epidemiological puzzle". But obviously their perspectives differed - what for Rabbi Weiss was a historical instance of God's judgement against the oppressors of Israel, was, for Marr, a coloured version of events with a rational explanation. Rabbi Weiss was playing Mulder to Marr's Scully.

Television Review

I HOPE SOMEONE in the Discovery Channel showroom shouted "anchors aweigh!" just before they went on air for Titantic Live, their transmission from the wreck of the Titanic (first shown in the early hours of Monday morning and repeated in an edited form on Channel 4 last night). It would have been a sad waste of a pun if not, because there were anchors all over the place - a female one on a supply vessel, a male one two-and-a-half miles down in the Nautile (a manned submersible which supplied many of the pictures), and another on the ship from which the Nautile was dangling. There was even a dry- dock anchor helping to carry the burden of this "unprecedented television event", a burden which included saying the word "live" more times than you would have thought humanly possible in just two hours. Occasionally, as with the soupy green images visible through the submarine's window, the density of the adjectives would increase to the point where visibility ceased altogether, to be replaced by an opaque swirl of whipped-up intensifiers - "Live on Titanic Live!" yelped the presenter at one point, as if her syntax had finally crumpled under the pressure of expectation. In the midst of this storm of galvanising adjectives, the wreck itself could occasionally be glimpsed - utterly silent, utterly dead, utterly patient - a rusting contradiction to all this worked-up immediacy.

Television Review

"HURR... WE'RE going to get a frazzled Mummy back," says Harry teasingly, as the Royal princes prepare to say goodbye to Princess Diana in an airport lounge. She is heading to bask in the sunshine of the south of France with Dodi al-Fayed; they princes are heading for Balmoral and will never see her alive again. In terms of tact, then, this supposition about their last conversation leaves something to be desired.

Television Review: The Broker's Man

IN LAST NIGHT'S episode of The Broker's Man (BBC1), Jimmy Griffin had his office trashed by right-wing thugs. One assumes that Kevin Whately's character is insured - he must be able to get trade rates given that he's an insurance investigator - but it wouldn't be easy explaining his claim to the loss adjuster. "Well," he might start, "this bearded toff had some medals stolen from his collection of militaria, and his insurance company agreed not to involve the police and stump up the money to buy them back." "Really." "Yes. Sounded a bit unlikely to me, but I think they're all in the funny-handshake mob. Anyway, they asked me to make the handover. But, when I did, the thief held a gun to my head and snatched one of the medals back. I think he was irritated because my wife rang me on the mobile - our daughter's been having a few problems at school." "I still don't see how this leads to this quite sizeable claim for the replacement of office equipment, Mr Griffin." "Oh, well you see the old toff was a fascist and the medal was a Ustashe decoration, and, when I did get it back, I kept it because I was cross with him. And then he sent round some National Front types to rough over my secretary until she opened the safe up. She's a right mess, poor girl. They had baseball bats." "Would I be right in thinking you're having some difficulty paying your wages bill at the moment, Mr Griffin?" "Um - slight problem with cash flow, you know how it is." "Yes, quite. Well, I imagine you're keen to have all this settled as quickly as possible, but I would just like our investigator to have a look round first."

Television Review: QED

THE QUAGGA, an extinct animal which looks like a half-painted zebra, was described in QED (BBC1) as "one of Africa's most graceful animals" and a "gentle" creature. But how reliable are these descriptions? It didn't look notably graceful in the only surviving photograph of the animal, taken by one of England's 19th-century aristocratic animal collectors. And, while it is hard to be certain about the behavioural characteristics of any extinct animal, if it was anything like a zebra at all then it won't have been very gentle either. Approaching one of the animals involved in an experiment to resurrect the quagga, the project leader was wary: "If I knew you wouldn't bite me, I'd give you my whole arm, but I can't trust you any more," he said, which wasn't a very convincing affidavit for its amiable nature. In truth, both phrases are posthumous honorifics, the sort of attributes we sentimentally ascribe to the beasts we have extinguished in order to make ourselves feel even wickeder than we are. It's bad enough killing off stolid, undistinguished organisms, but to do away with a gentle, graceful animal is really beyond the pale.

Television Review

FOR EVERY SIX people who will successfully reach the summit of Everest, one person will die. This is not a macabre kind of tourist tax, just the current ratio of triumph to disaster, and it doesn't really help you calculate your odds. You might hit a peaceful stretch rather than one of the banshee storms which do so much to maintain the mountain's batting figures. All the same, it's the sort of statistic which would give you pause for thought as you join the queue up through the Khumbu Icefall. Everest base camp now looks like Glastonbury with boulders, so, if the average is to be maintained, someone in that Goretexed crowd is for it. Unfortunately, pausing for thought isn't going to help your survival chances much once you're up there, because, as the Equinox (C4) film about high altitude physiology reminded you, the brain can become as sluggish as the limbs when it is starved of oxygen. The effects might even be permanent: "some work indicates that climbers who go to extreme altitude without oxygen do come back with smaller brains," said a Seattle white-coat, briefing the members of a special expedition set up to study the effects of hypoxia. Regular high-altitude climbers, he explained, suffer from subtle cognitive disfunction which can only be detected by psychometric testing.

Television Review

IN HIS OWN SURVEY of the sexual urge, "Let's Do It", Noel Coward made sure that he acknowledged the patron saint of sexology: "Even Kinsey, with a deafening report, does it," he sang, completing his account of universal fornication. He was right about the bang, anyway. As a questionable film from Secret History (C4) reminded you, the publication of Kinsey's research had an explosive impact on American society: "Bombs, H and K" read the headline on one newspaper report, and it seems the reverberations have still not died down. The central charge in Tim Tate's film, which recorded the latest aftershocks from the initial blast, was that Kinsey had relied on paedophiles for his findings on child sexuality. I was going to write for his "controversial findings", but the curious thing was that this was a dog that did not bark at the time. There was no wild outcry on first publication about the fact that several tables in the report detailed the time it took for children to reach orgasm, with entries for children as young as five months old and durations as long (and transparently incredible) as 24 hours. Either newspapers at the time were too preoccupied by the broader headlines or, more likely, their sensibilities hadn't been scraped raw in this particular area, as ours have. In that sense "Kinsey's Paedophiles" was as much a register of changing attitudes as a piece of revisionist history. At the time, the term "paedophile" would have been an essentially clinical description - now it is a word to raise a mob.

Television Review

One wonders whether Neil Morrissey really thought things through when he was offered the role of The Vanishing Man. On the one hand he doesn't actually have to turn up for quite a lot of the scenes in which he appears - or rather doesn't appear- because his presence can be represented by floating coffee cups or just a wobbly point-of-view shot accompanied by heavy breathing and the odd sotto-voce mutter. It's sometimes said of actors that they merely phone a performance in, but there are quite a few sequences in which Morrissey could do exactly that, without any breach of professionalism. On the other hand the particular nature of his invisibility calls for sequences which must be unpleasant to film, to say the least. His character disappears only when he's wet through and obviously he must abandon all his clothes to achieve full transparency. This means that he can surreptitiously pursue a man breaking out of jail and hitch a ride on the roof rack of the getaway car. But as soon as he dries off he becomes visible again, however awkward the circumstances. This is exploited for its obvious comedy in the series - in a sequence shot from the inside of a lorry-driver's cab, the villain's overtaking Range-Rover first revealed Morrissey's bashful face, then his stark naked body, looking decidedly chilly in the windstream. Unless he was wearing some kind of posing pouch he was probably The Shrinking Man for a while too.
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