How giving up smoking leads to high drama

TELEVISION
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
1997 Will be yet another year of crisis for the BBC. Hands will be wrung over re-organisation, breasts beaten over standards and hair torn over economies. Articles will appear in this and many another newspaper pronouncing doom and thrice doom on the House of Birt. And yet, paradoxically, we will see things on our screens that are truly wonderful - and most of them will be made by the Beeb.

Let me call my first witness, m'lud, and also one of the first programmes of the year. The Mill on the Floss (BBC1, New Year's Day), commissioned by a drama department which is always described as being on the brink of collapse and catastrophe, was almost flawless. It wasn't mannered or self-conscious, and managed to highlight those aspects of George Eliot's novel which have modern resonance (freedom versus fidelity, happiness versus conscience), without doing violence to the original.

The book's feminism was apparent, not least in the casting of the heroine, Maggie Tulliver: she was played by an actress (Emily Watson) who looked like a cross between a busty Vivien Leigh (all wilful and pouty) and Sarah Dunant at her most Bookerish. Maggie's relationships, her ambivalence, the modernity of Philip Wakem's attitude towards her ("Be that brilliant woman you were always destined to be"), her complex yet crushing family ties - all were there, and lacking the black / white crudity of much Victorian novelising. Except, of course, for the sentimental tragedy at the end, when Maggie and her difficult brother (who rather reminded me of Ian Beale from EastEnders) drowned together. I wept slightly guiltily as the doomed siblings sank to the bottom of the millpool.

The only thing that bothered me was this: how come when Maggie woke up to find her cottage flooded, she crawled out of the window and found a boat right there? Did Victorians keep dinghies tied to their shutters, just in case (like we carry fire extinguishers in the car)? And if they didn't, who are we to blame: George Eliot or John Birt?

My second witness is The Moonstone (BBC2, Sunday & Monday), in which the contents of a Victorian country house and its inhabitants were lovingly re-created, so that the first detective in English literary history (Sergeant Cuff, played by Antony Sher) could prowl around them, looking into their drawers.

There were coaches, antimacassars, loads and loads of drawing-room piano playing, a sexy heroine (Keeley Hawes as Rachel Verinder - another Winona combo of cheekbones and big eyes), a sexy hero (Greg Wise as Franklin Blake, attired almost permanently in a fetching linen nightgown), loads of faithful retainers (including a mad servant girl wot loves Master Franklin, and creeps into his room to caress his blotter, before flinging herself into the Shivering Sands) and yet more piano-playing.

For once the solution to the mystery (the theft of the eponymous sparkler) did not lie in some improbable coincidence, but in the entirely believable idea of a man being driven into demented somnambulism as a result of having given up smoking. A seasonal thought, if ever there was one.

Like several million Britons I made a resolution at the beginning of 1996. But I failed to live up to it, and so found myself in front of The End of the Year Show (BBC1, New Year's Eve), in which Angus Deayton took over the role that the now-ITV-contracted Clive James had once filled. Although the formula was the same (caption gags, comics, live band) the atmosphere wasn't. Deayton - with his raised eyebrows and mocking turns to camera - evinces only a chilly and ironic bonhomie, making the event feel as though you were spending a captive evening with your sarcastic older brother. It was a bit laddish and desperate.

But no sooner had the chilled chimes of Big Ben rung than we were whisked away from Angus and entourage engaging in a wonderfully insincere "Auld Lang Syne" (Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot, Who Gives A Fuck?), and dumped inside a tartan-festooned Caledonian dance-hall with Gordon Kennedy and the assembled clans doing a vigorous Highland dance in Hogmanay Live. But why were we there? Or rather, why were we not just as much elsewhere? Were there no reels being wound in Cumberland, nor White Sergeants dashing in Wiltshire? Do the Scots sit in their tenements and crofts watching their black-and-white tellys, entranced by the sight of Philip Schofield doing Morris dances? Of course they don't. Unlike the Scots, the English (and the Welsh for that matter) fail to celebrate New Year properly, so they have to stay at home and watch this rubbish.

But just to make sure that they don't complain too much, why not show them something so unbelievably bad, so crass, so ridiculous, that they feel pathetically grateful for Deayton and Kennedy. Something like Siegfried and Roy: The Magic and the Mystery (BBC2, New Year's Eve), for instance. These two are American illusionists (described in the Radio Times as the "Liberaces of Magic"), and this show appeared to be a promotional video for them that their agent or somebody had sent - in vain hope - to the BBC, which had subsequently got mixed up with the tapes for transmission.

Camp doesn't come close to describing Siegfried and Roy; self-parody completely fails to capture the silliness. These are two fortysomething guys dressed in Klingon outfits (but with the additional flourishes of Peter Stringfellow hairdos and leather codpieces) prancing around and above stage, or floating in balloons. All the shots were soft-focus and the commentary was replete with the kind of pseudo-self-exploratory bollocks that used to pepper pension ads about four years ago. "Ever since I was a chi-ild," intoned the voice of Siegfried (or was it Roy?), "I have dr-reamed of floa-oating in a balloon, bouncing high in the sky."

When Siegfried wasn't being levitated to the enthusiastic applause of an audience of credulous or drugged American nightclubbers ("and in time fable became fact"), he and Roy were playing musical hearthrugs with their pet tigers (commentary: "many tigers were born in the home of Siegfried and Roy").

But the biggest thing in the whole programme was not Mama Siberian Tiger (huge though she was), but the extraordinary bulge that Roy's trousers sported throughout. Was it just an illusion, or was it really an enormous semi-erect penis? ("Ever since I was a chi-ild, I have dr-reamed of fl-launting my pl-lonker to millions.") Could it, like Siegfried, somehow stay up on its own - defying gravity - or were we simply missing the hidden wire? I just hoped it had nothing to do with the large amount of his act that Roy spent straddling one of the tigers.

So here's my New Year challenge. I dare the person at the BBC who originally proposed to the harassed channel controller that he should fill a slot with this dross, to write to me and answer this question: if product placement is not permitted, how did Roy's penis placement get air-time?

I will not descend to crude jokes about where penises might more properly be placed, but I would certainly die happy if I might just once place my lips in proximity to those of Laurie Pike, a tall, red-headed, intelligent and spunky Yank, who I would like to see a lot more of on TV this year.

She was the presenter, producer and writer of Six Steps to Heaven (Channel 4, Thursday), a show which skated pleasantly over the surface of the history of popular dancing since 1900. As I watched Laurie and an 89-year-old black Kansas man demonstrate the charleston on a summery New York sidewalk, I realised that the subject and the presenter would make a tremendous series, with a different dance craze explored and demonstrated in each half hour. As it was we got too little Laurie, too little dance and far too much Chubby Checker talking about the twist. So a suggestion for 1997 for Channel 4 - commission Ms Pike to make a 10-part series on dancing, and back it up with contact numbers, manuals and instruction tapes for those hundreds of thousands who (like me) have always wanted to dance the charleston, jitterbug, disco, etc. but have never had the courage to learn. Because, ever since I was a chi-ild I have dr-reamed ...

Comments