It's a man's man's world

TELEVISION

"If you can talk with crowds ..."

THAT Brian Mawhinney's a dangerous man. How was he ever allowed to sneak unimpeded into Parliament? He's not ugly, he's not boring, and he can make a witty speech. Perhaps the Conservatives haven't noticed yet, but this is no warm-up man - he outshone all who came after him on Conference Live 95 (BBC1). He had them rolling in the aisles as he compared Labour MPs to the cast of Last of the Summer Wine, or ridiculed a Labour grant to the Camden Hopscotch Asian Women's Group (which teaches language skills). Even the Tory memsahibs laughed at this, all crossed legs and conflicting perfumes (there were no Asians in sight, though, to laugh or cry). Forty-six viewers phoned the BBC to complain that his speech had delayed the One O'Clock News, but Mawhinney was pursuing a higher purpose: to reduce the Prime Minister to an attack of the giggles (not wise in a face that looks frog-like when smiling). Major wasn't fit to govern himself, much less the country. There's a touch of arrested development about him.

It's not easy being a little boy. A bit humiliating really. Most men would avoid the experience if they could (and most are accused of still being one). In Jake's Progress (C4), Jake (played by seven-year-old Barclay Wright) is being a boy to the best of his ability. He's supported in this by his father, Jamie (Robert Lindsay), who loves him, and his teachers, who think he's very bright. His mother (Julie Walters) thinks his whole existence is a mistake, apparently because he smiles too much and sometimes slams his bedroom door. But her aversion is in turn drowned out by that of her own mother (Dorothy Tutin), who hates not only Jake (for smiling), but his half-Italian father, Italians in general, and lasagne. She likes Jeremy Beadle, so she's obviously insane. She's a lot like the evil old woman seen recently in Degrees of Error (BBC2), played by Phyllida Law - an impossible, scary caricature, making her wimpish husband's life a misery. They're both ads for HRT.

Jamie once had hopes of being a pop star but is now a tireless Superdad and house-husband. The marriage revolves around disagreements over Jake's progress. Jamie handles this by being incessantly jocose, a court jester emitting a patter of only occasionally funny jokes. His role as cunning linguist is confirmed in bed, where he pays lip service to Julie in an obliging manner.

When told about her pregnancy, Jake prepares a sign saying "DIE", which he waves over the offending belly while his mother's asleep. Then Jake tries to hang himself on the clothes-line, in imitation of a cowboy movie he's seen on TV. This is the point at which you take the kid to a shrink, but Jamie merely tells him to keep quiet about it. Jamie has other worries - a female fortune-teller has predicted he will have an affair just before he dies. I predict another five episodes charting Jamie's disintegration at the hands of these formidable females, and the effect of this on Jake, as Alan Bleasdale's drama attempts to reach "epic" proportions. A bubbling brew of sweet and sour, superstition and male paranoia, with every woman a witch.

It's a man's world. But the fact that men dominate television makes it a kind of zoo in which to study them. How about Mondrian as an example of the stiff, pinched male, full of plans to impose his vision on the world, but restricted by his own frigidity? His devotion to geometrical abstraction may seem dry and cheerless, but according to Mondrian: Mr Boogie-Woogie Man (BBC2) there was another side to him. He may have worn a suit and tie, even when painting, but he also loved jazz. He once vowed he'd never return to his native Holland when they threatened to ban the charleston.

But it was only in his final years in New York, where he could immerse himself in jazz and a city coincidentally built as if to his own plan, that the inner Mondrian really emerged. Broadway Boogie-Woogie, a yellow grid dappled with red and blue squares, is bursting with colour, rhythm and the illusion of three dimensions - a joy. In his relations with women, Mondrian never loosened up. The artist John Golding quoted Mondrian's remark when invited to a brothel: "Every drop of semen spent is a masterpiece lost."

In the South Bank Show's profile of him (ITV), Melvyn Bragg called Pavarotti a "larger-than-life personality", a meaningless compliment amalgamating two cliches about fat people. He may be large but his personality is a normal size or possibly a little small. But he expects to be treated like a king - he only looks good in royal robes now anyway.

Melvyn gets very flirtatious with the famous, squirming seductively, head thrown back in order to laugh inordinately. Pavarotti seemed to take to this approach. The only person Pavarotti ever deferred to was his grandmother who made him whistle while he grated the parmesan, to make sure he wasn't eating it. But this wasn't because of his obesity - it turns out Pavarotti was once lithe. There were photos to prove it, but you don't want to see Pavarotti thin. Even Princess Di likes him the way he is: everything she isn't.

Gore Vidal stalked ruminatively across the screen in Omnibus's Gore Vidal's Gore Vidal (BBC1). It is hard to imagine him young, but again there were photographs. He's well-loved by women but seems obsessed with maleness, and attracted to all non-violent forms of male power: political, intellectual and financial. He was tutored in these by his grandfather, TP Gore, a blind senator from Oklahoma. Vidal mentioned him repeatedly, always emphasising that he was blind. In fact, as he admits in his forthcoming memoirs, TP was "a mild misogynist and a true misanthrope, which the public never guessed as they gazed on his serene, kindly face". Is he describing himself?

Vidal defended women against the likes of Norman Mailer, but seems far too enraptured with politics, that predominantly male war of words. He would have liked to be a senator, and probably should have been president, but he's best on chat shows.

What's the point of choosing The Nation's Favourite Poems (BBC1)? If your favourite doesn't win, you're appalled by the nation's bad taste; if it does, you're the proud lover of the most promiscuous poem in town. What the nation chose was the poem everyone had to learn at school, Kipling's "If". All of Yeats, Donne, Shakespeare, Hopkins and Heaney, discarded for those headmasterish words of wisdom: "Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!" Yeah? Says who?

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