Family hell and a voice from heaven

TELEVISION

ONE GREAT disadvantage of being rich and famous in America is that when your pampered children murder you, the whole world gets to watch a banal Hollywood mini-series re-enacting your family life, complete with frequent reminders of your unsavoury demise, and actors who never look enough like the people they're impersonating. The assumption behind Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills (ITV) is that there's nothing we plebs like more than spying on the rich, especially if they're unhappy.

But the Menendez family doesn't seem in any worse shape than most close relatives cooped up together. The father's a self-made millionaire with bullying tendencies and unwarrantedly high expectations of his sons. The mother is working her way towards senselessness through drink and Vivaldi. The two seemingly full-grown boys are forever asking permission to go out. At dinner, Papa quizzes them on economics. He has limited time and patience for his paternal duties and offers mainly scorn and admonition - but, hey, it worked for Mozart.

I thought the murder would never come. The parents are contentedly eating ice-cream and watching Leave It to Beaver on TV, that sit-com of ideal family life, when Lyle and Erik burst in and open fire - proof at last, if we needed it, that parents are annoying when eating ice-cream. The jurors couldn't bring themselves to convict, probably because the boys were now orphans. Self-made orphans. Good cryers too.

Crime of the Wolf (True Stories, C4) seemed at first much more exotic. Using KGB videos and interviewing everyone from his favourite school-teacher to his mother, his wife, various victims of his misdeeds, fellow prisoners and the public prosecutor who fell in love with him, they pieced together the rise and fall of a Russian criminal named Maduev. A wily, unpleasant- looking bloke with a string of killings to his name, red lips, rectangular eyebrows and an astonishing ability to endear himself to people who might prove useful, he's a sort of murderous version of Nick Leeson, with subtitles, and spends his life in Russian prisons, where women stand outside shouting up encouragements at inmates like "Natasha's waiting, she loves you," receiving in return strange tightly rolled scraps of paper.

Maduev's childhood was suitably macabre, including drug-dealing from the age of five. He left home at 13, devoted himself to a life of crime, forgives and trusts no one, and has had so many aliases he often forgets his own name. "If you have not known grief, love me," says the tattoo on his arm. He preys on people's compassion. The poor baffled public prosecutor smuggled a gun to him and ended up in a prison camp herself. Even from there she still longs to help him, because "He saw the woman in me". Far from it. "I didn't see the woman in her," says he. "I saw someone dragging me to the death penalty ... I never loved a woman for more than five minutes ... I always choose plain women, the uglier the better."

The sun was setting. Again and again. The film wanted to be a great Russian novel, and tried to achieve this by going on and on and on, and by glorifying Maduev to the point of absurdity. "He emanates masculine power." Moreover, he's "taut like a spring which you can bend but it always bounces back stronger and stronger", and is "distinguished from all of us by two features: his absolute freedom and his incredible power, the power of his personality, will- power, and some inner power that rushes from him like some kind of avalanche!" Too much prison soup perhaps.

Various sporty types were outraged this week by Panorama's report on drug-taking among Olympic athletes (The Drugs Olympics, BBC2). I got quite upset myself about "drug cheats" until I remembered that I don't actually care about the Olympics. Tricks of the trade apparently include hiding bags of your coach's drug-free urine in your armpit, or even injecting it through a catheter into your bladder. Surely anyone willing to go through that deserves to win something. The smart ones now take drugs that can't be detected in urine at all. The tests therefore only pinpoint the stupid.

Chinese women swimmers came under attack for steroid-abuse, but in fact they have crafty training tactics not even mentioned by Panorama: they're not allowed to go out on dates until they're 22. There's nothing like a little sexual frustration to propel you through the water, as lunch- break pool-users all over the world will tell you.

Surely the Olympics are burnt out anyway. They can't even keep that torch alight, despite having, according to The Greatest Show on Earth: It's Atlanta (BBCl), three "secret" back-up flames. Traditionally the less commercial end of sports, the Olympic Games this year are merely an ad for Coke, and a magnet for shysters of all kinds. While the devious rich rent out their mansions for $70,000 a week, crooks and conmen from all over America are flocking in: 100- metre pickpockets, high-jumping burglars and world champion field-and- track car-jackers. It really brings a tear to your eye.

"I never knew how good my songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them," said Ira Gershwin. She was born in 1918, orphaned at 15 and almost destitute when she won a talent competition. Wouldn't this make a better mini-series than the Menendez brothers? But the BBC commendably raced through her biography in A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (BBC2) to concentrate on the music, simply showing two concerts. The first, in 1965, featured Ella with bleached hair and wearing an enormous black dress, singing to an uptight white audience. But she sang beautifully. It was the perfection of her voice that made her suspect among jazz musicians. Humphrey Lyttelton on Radio 2 recently admitted feeling she was "emotionally, small beer" compared to Billie Holiday. But the purity of sound which made Joan Baez insipid makes Fitzgerald a joy.

With such a voice, she could afford to take risks and was forever departing from the lyrics in order to improvise the sound of a trumpet or trombone. She was impatient with limitations: in the second concert, at Ronnie Scott's in the Seventies, she had a long conversation with the double bass, in which she mixed three songs (at least) into one. Her enthusiasm's catching. "I'm in a spin - I'm lovin' the spin I'm in." This time, she wore a taut golden gown and glasses and teetered between a seductive dedication to the music, and the grandmotherish persona she would put on between the numbers. "I'm not so hot, but my shape is my own."

It doesn't matter that some of the songs were banal, it's her utter absorption in them that's stunning. Woken from it by clapping, she resumes her embarrassed, self-effacing air, which only makes you want her to sing more. She likes it when she can get the audience to laugh, but likes it even more when they just shut up and listen. "I'm living in a kind of daydream, I'm happy as a king and, foolish though it may seem, to me that's everything." It's awful to think of her dead, when she was so good live. How strange the change, from major to minor.

Next week, Lucy Ellmann begins a new column in the comment section of the main paper.

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