Go on, seduce me

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Indy Lifestyle Online
You Might (said the formidably intelligent woman TV executive to me, as we sipped the white wine of California) have had a point two weeks ago about John Romer's lack of discipline in his series on Byzantium. But what you missed was the charm. There is (she went on) so little charm in television - so little of that capacity to take an audience and captivate it - that when it occurs it needs to be nurtured, and allowed to stray.

She was, I think, half right. There is a lot of enthusiasm on the box (adrenalised presenters bounding about caring deeply about gardens or cookery), and there is an awful lot of competence. But there is never enough charm. So it was a coup for the BBC to persuade Britain's best living diarist (just ahead of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones) that he should present an entire series. Doubly so when the diarist is a historian, a Conservative MP and a former minister, and the subject is his own party. Alan Clark's History of the Conservative Party (BBC2, Sun), then, should be the perfect meeting place for style and content - for charm and insight.

Indeed, in a physical sense, Clark delivers. From the moment that the blue lion in the title sequence slopes behind his head, his face and voice utterly dominate what happens. That lascivious whisky-sliding-over-rocks drawl, the narrowed eyes, that odd top lip, curled up to reveal the white teeth - like a randy old grey squirrel - are almost ever-present. For it has been decided by the producers that Clark is so charming that he should be in a state of perpetual PTC (piece to camera). On Dover beach, in fields, in every possible location at Saltwood Castle save the loo; sitting, standing, walking; early in the morning or late at night (with the drawl that bit fruitier, as though he's just emerged from a good dinner, to find that bloody camera crew waiting for him again), Clark turns to the lens and performs. By the end of episode one I felt that I'd seen as much of him as had - say - South African twin nymphets, or his wife, even.

Clark's writing too, is wonderful: confident and unqualified, epigrammatic, and full of superb precis. And even the bits without him in the frame are beautifully shot: all great houses and sniffing beagles. Interviewees sit on brocade sofas in large rooms whose half-open French windows lead to a backdrop of long, green swards of lawn.

And here we reach the limits of charm. For, in the end Clark really has nothing much to say about the Conservative Party. He has things to say about Churchill, and Chamberlain, the war, Heath and (I daresay) about Mrs Thatcher, but not about the Tories. In fact he does not seem to have given the matter much thought. The Conservatives are arguably the greater of the two great British political parties. Certainly the more successful. Their success is rooted in their relationship with "the people" - yet this relationship and its evolution scarcely figures in these programmes.

At one point Clark tells us that "whenever there is a victory for the Conservative Party, it is because the party has succeeded in reaching out beyond its natural constituency, and into the working class". Now, this is a beautiful sentence, but given the electoral history of Britain since 1922 (Clark's starting point), it needs some explanation. How could Baldwin, with his rural idyll of "woodsmoke on an autumn evening", and his successors, have captured the votes, again and again, of the most urbanised electorate on earth?

As it happens, this week three other history series all threw different shafts of light into Clark's unexplored hinterland. Ian Hislop's School Rules (C4, Sun), the final part of three, looked at education in the post- war period when - for 35 out of 50 or so years - the Tories were in power.

In the first five minutes of Hislop's show, I found the thing I had been missing in Clark's tale - the connection between the high policy and the indi- vidual. A middle-aged woman talkedabout the morning, years before, that her 11-plus results had arrived. She had failed, but her friend next door had passed. All of a sudden she became aware of a loud plopping sound: tears were rolling down her poor little face and falling into her cornflakes. Still, she thought, at least I'll have a school satchel to take to the secondary modern. But then she was told that "there was no point in having a satchel; there'd be nothing to put in it." Such was the poverty of expectation.

To be replaced - when, inevitably this awful system was abolished - by progressive education. When, in 1971, Brum teacher Jennifer Muscutt appeared, masturbating, in Dr Martin Cole's educational (and seminal) film Growing Up (Cole: "If you're talking about masturbation, you've got to film it." One of the great unknown imperatives), Hislop's nicely turned comment was that "teachers could no longer be relied upon to transmit traditional morality".

No one's name is attached to The Nazis: A Warning from History (BBC2, Wed). Presumably it was thought that a title like Ulrika Jonsson's Nazis would be a bit tasteless. Anyway the accolade belongs to Laurence Rees (writer and producer) for the amazing archive and interviews that he has deployed. This week we began with Adolf at the Berghof, watching a romantic comedy, featuring a scantily clad mediaeval princess (wearing only a pointy princess hat, some gauze and two of those round metal nipple guards) cavorting with an animated suit of armour.

This segued beautifully into a description of the feudal structure of Hitler's Germany, with Goering's castle follies and Himmler's Gothic lunacy - the marriage of technology with barbarism. Most memorable was the Gotterdammerung scene of the storm at Berchtesgarten on the day the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed, verbally painted - unforgettably - by Hitler's closest aide. He tells of the lightning flashing, thunder reverberating around the hills, and a Hungarian woman in the party having a vision of "blood, blood, more blood!" Hitler, hearing this, consoles himself with fatalism.

A warning from History, though? I think that subtitle may rather belong to Provos (BBC1, Tues). Presenter Peter Taylor is not particularly charming on screen. His pieces to camera are conventional, and his writing unremarkable. In the Romer sense he does not "charm". But this is one of our most exceptional journalists, presenting a quite extraordinary series - one which, had it been screened just a year ago, would have occasioned the most enormous outcry.

For what we see here, for the first time, is a history of the Troubles with the viewpoint and experiences of the Troublers - the men and women of the IRA - brought centre-stage. And now we can really understand just how it happened, how one event led to another. How the Civil Rights protestors were treated, and how the IRA earned its community spurs defending a church under Protestant attack in 1970. How - in the aftermath of that gun battle - troops went into the Lower Falls looking for guns and - after their initial welcome - were regarded by Catholics as the enemy. Within months, soft- spoken hippy types with beards and berets were instructing teenagers on how to make bombs. We were a short hop from body parts being shovelled out of restaurants and bus depots - and from Bloody Sunday.

One of the IRA's most notorious sons, Brendan Hughes, testified to the 1971 murder of a British soldier, who had been held down by local women ("his face ripped to bits," said another witness) and then executed. "I was told he was only a kid," recalled Hughes. "He was crying for his mother. And the person that killed him was as young. It certainly had an effect on me." Which was good to know, for the next meeting with Hughes has him taking delivery of some armalites, and thinking "This is it! We're really moving up a stage here!" All the better to shoot mothers' sons with, Brendan.

The only thing missing, though, was the generic sense of the power and enjoyment that men with guns get out of being men with guns. Principle is fine, but swaggering is fun. Nevertheless, to have got this testimony at all was an immense achievement. To have located it so lucidly in the narrative, and to have imparted the mad logic of events so clearly, deserves considerably more praise and attention than this series has gained so far. If you missed part one, try and catch the rest. It's good to be charmed, but it's better actually to learn something.