A close shave with genius

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IN A week when anyone with a big name was allowed to get away with self-indulgence of obscene proportions, Nick Park's A Close Shave (BBC2) was an endearingly modest masterpiece. Thirty minutes was all it took to serve up this painstaking animated film of Wallace and Gromit's latest Plasticine adventure, a charmed world of amateur inventions and battles fought with porridge. There was an irredeemably cute sheep who, having had a close shave himself, had to wear a woolly jumper knitted from his own clippings, and a bad bull-dog who turned out to be a robot - his only punishment for his crimes was to have his nuts and bolts examined and a bit of re-wiring done. Park's visual jokes are great. In an ideal world, sheep would give up those loose formations in fields and gather into pyramids atop motorcycles. But then he's best at animals; his bland, huge-handed humans should be banished to the netherworld of all the art- school cartoons that don't get shown.

Talking of cuteness, why three hours, spread over three days, of poor old Alan Bennett wandering resignedly around Westminster Abbey pretend- ing to be thinking up wry remarks and paragraphs of English history on the spot (The Abbey, BBC2)? His Eeyore-ish intonations seem better suited to recitations of Winnie-the-Pooh than musings on mon- archy and monks. And there were endless longueurs while we waited for beauteous Japanese women to collect cups of tea in the cafeteria, or watched the "tribes of Nike and Adidas and Reebok" funnel down the aisles. Even the jokes were incredibly slow. When they did arrive, they hung briefly in the thick ecclesiastical air and then fell flat. I expected our good Bennett to make something more of the tourists arguing over the whereabouts of Piccadilly Circus, or scrutinising maps in a vain search for a square called Marks & Sparks.

His self-restraint began to look suspicious. Being a national treasure he must be in want of a good entombment. He would fit in well in Poet's Corner, which he so rightly mocks as "English Literature, safe and cosified" - but it might be a bit of a squeeze.

Sen Mrdha's film I, Graves: the Life and Loves of an English Poet (Bookmark, BBC2) had less need to keep a straight face, and instead surrendered itself to juicy gossip and shots of the pleasant places in which Robert Graves managed to live. Mistresses and children dished the dirt, and much fun was had by all. But if Alan Bennett has turned himself into a caricature, Graves the myth-maker turned himself into a little god, and many still worship at the shrine. After being declared officially dead in the First World War, he rose, phoenix-like, to endure a ghastly romance with Laura Riding and an interminable old age in Dey. He devoted himself to poetry and the occasional muse, who arrived in the form of some neighbouring artiste of creditable comeliness. But it was I, Claudius that paid for his final nursing care.

"You're an idiot. You're not in the club," said Ivan Nagy to Nick Broomfield, the director of Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (BBC2). "You're missing something, Nick. You gotta research it better." Ivan Nagy is a convicted panderer and Heidi Fleiss's boyfriend. Heidi is a convicted panderer too, and in some way connected to the late Madame Alex, who stayed in bed all day so she could be close to the phone. Madame Alex was a convicted panderer ... and so it goes on. As for Nick, he is a self-aggrandising film-maker who finds it hard to come to the point. The documentary lasted an hour and 45 minutes, and he still hadn't got there.

The best moments were when the thing changed from a Raymond Chandler quest for the shy Heidi (a supposed innocent caught up in a dangerous world of sex, drugs and violence) and became instead something baroque and barely credible: Madame Alex's maid filling her house with fumes to purify it against evil spirits; Heidi describing her "Fantasy Evening", in which she and a chosen prostitute will act out stories for two or three hours, for a mere $40,000; a short clip from a porn film called Bobbitt Uncut in which penises were being flung from car windows; and Peter Sellers's daughter Victoria, in a room full of crucifixes, declaring that a night of paid sex with a guy who liked to stick coat-hangers up his ass had her "nearly disgusted". But then we'd always return to Nick, strapped into his recording equipment, narrating his slow approach towards Heidi. "I really didn't want to believe that Heidi and Ivan were still seeing each other," he moaned. I really didn't care.

And so to my Yuletide Quiz, based on TV offerings of the last week.

1 Who said the following:

a) "You already sqveezed me as much as you can sqveeze. I don't want to be sqveezed any more." (Ivana Trump, Hugh Grant, or Madame Alex?)

b) "He loved her, he loved her, and all that spiel." (Princess Di, Barbara Cartland or Madame Alex?)

c) When instructing his muse to bite his finger: "It's important to me. It's my poet's finger." (Hugh Grant, Prince Charles or Robert Graves?)

2 How long was Graves's afternoon swim? Was it:

a) 10 minutes; b) five minutes; c) a very short time, because his work was so important?

3 Who jumped out of a window when their menage a trois was threatened? Was it:

a) Laura Riding; b) Robert Graves; c) Geoffrey Phibbs; d) all of the above?

4 Would you rather Alan Bennett stuck to:

a) Writing plays, diaries and whatnot; b) recording children's classics on tape; c) neither of the above?

5 Why did Ken Russell do a remake of Treasure Island (C4)? And was this remake:

a) awful; b) unbearable; c) a Christmas extravaganza full of curious and wondrous delights?

6 Could Alexei Sayle's Sorry About Last Night (BBC1) have been any less erotic or any more politically correct? And was it:

a) lousy; b) unbearable; c) a Christmas extravaganza full of curious and wondrous delights?

7 Compare and contrast Her Majesty the Queen (The Queen, BBC1) and Brigitte Bardot (The Alternative Christmas Message, C4). Include in your answer one of the following considerations:

either Why is Bardot not our Queen?

or Which woman knows what to do with a) her hair; b) her assets?

or Which woman would you rather a) have tea with; b) have a bath with; c) have dealings of any sort with?

Anyone with more than four correct answers has watched too much television.

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