Keeping builders happy: the naked truth
Sunday 26 January 1997
Right now the fashion is for "hard" names, rather than the Weltanshauung cover-all. Storys are Inside, Edges are Cutting, Historys and Lives are Secret. Unfortunately this leads to some viewer-confusion, especially since the titles bear little relation sometimes to the content (Cutting Edge, for instance, is not an incisive piece of revelatory journalism, but a "what-a- strange-lot-we-are" doc series). So the editors and series producers have taken to adding secondary titles to distinguish their own output from those programmes with similar names but different content. So you might well get shows like Secret Stories: The Strippers of Java, or Hard Lives: Churchill the Transvestite. Or, indeed, Cutting Edge: The Builders Are Coming (C4, Mon), which marked something of a return to form for this series, after a rather dodgy run last year. Not that I wasn't worried, mind you. The first shot was a long pan over quiet urban roofs, pulling across and down, through trees to the street. To find - after five seconds - a yellow builder's lorry approaching menacingly. To get the shot, something called a "crane" must have been used, and the builder's van would have been cued by mobile phone at the point that the end of the street came into the camera's view. It was wholly contrived. Was this an omen for the rest of the programme? Had its case-histories been similarly set up? I needn't have worried. The three and a half stories featured all turned out to be kosher. And together they painted a much richer comic portrait of the anxious, angry relationship between builders and their clients than might have been feared.
Running through the show, like a dirty coal seam, was the tale of gum- chewing John Allaway's unsuccessful attempts to drum up business. Unkempt though he was - and uninterested in what his clients told him ("Off me 'ed? I'd say 12 grand"), it was his physical appearance that was his greatest handicap. Stockily framed, with dark curly hair and a wide smile, John was a dead-ringer for that other builder, Fred West. So that might put them off a bit.
Case two was the story of Rhona and Jerry. She'd talk to the builders as if they were kids at the school of which she was the headmistress, lecturing them about punctuality - only to be subverted by her infantilised husband, Jerry, who would add a new patio the second her back was turned. We left her exacting the ultimate revenge on the naughty boys, by withholding payment on the flimsiest grounds. So true!
Simon Seaton, on the other hand, was the philosopher builder, whose verbal dexterity covered (for a while) his utterly infuriating attitude towards his clients. Clients secretly wanted to be lied to: " 'Please tell me the truth.' That's the biggest lie they can say," he said (his clients in this case were doubtless paying out vast sums on a bridging loan, while he went months over schedule. I wept for them). But then, he revealed, he was "12 grand" out on the deal. Why? We never found out. Nor did we ever discover why 12 grand is such a talismanic figure for builders.
What was new was Simon's revelation that the way to get him eating out of your hand was to open the front door - as one favoured customer did - clad only in "soap-suds and a towel just covering her vital parts". I intend to give this a try myself, next time the roof needs doing.
Another approach that might work is to imagine what Lyndon Baines Johnson would have said to an erring builder, and then take action. For, as Secret History: Hello Mr President (C4, Tues) showed, Johnson was a formidable persuader, capable of great wheedling and terrible bullying - and almost all of it in a good cause.
The programme was founded on recently released tapes (1,000 hours were recorded) of telephone conversations, starting soon after Johnson had been catapulted into the highest office by the assassination of John
Kennedy. Together, Charles Wheeler's spare commentary, some excellent testimony and the tapes themselves amounted to a wonderful sketch of the Johnson presidency. It also added weight to the growing consensus that LBJ was the last great President of the US and quite conceivably - along with FDR - the greatest this century. Had it not been for the Kennedy beatification, and (a big caveat, this) the disaster of Vietnam, Johnson's achievement - a brilliant fusion of vision and realpolitik in the service of civil and economic rights - would have been recognised a long time ago.
Most memorable were his strong-arming of Senator Richard Russell into serving on the Warren Commission inquiry into the assassination, and the humiliating lengths he went to in order to pacify the Kennedy clan. "I'm aware of my limitations more than anybody else," he told Teddy Kennedy. Teddy, for Chrissake!
His knowledge and understanding of things foreign were rudimentary, as evidenced in his paranoid belief that the Russians were responsible for Dallas, and might be coming for him. But as Inside Story: The Honey Trap (BBC1, Tues) showed, the Reds had much better ways of getting people on-side: seduce them - literally. However, my problem with the show (which was peppered with questions like "You slept with him, yet you felt no guilt about informing on him?") was that I felt very little horror at the idea of sexual entrapment. If forced to choose between the CIA method of attaching electrodes to your testicles, and the KGB one of attaching Natasha to the same place, I know which I'd prefer.
What I loved was the accidental painting of the KGB as a subtle organisation, full of cultured, humorous and agreeable personalities. Like Mr Lubimov, who told us that not all nationalities were equally susceptible to seduction: the Brits were cold and homosexual, the Italians passionate, the Spaniards likewise, the Americans not bad, but "the Dutch are awful, worse than the Swedes". Why? Is it the clogs? The dykes? Tell me please! But answer came there none.
There was a similar mystery in The South Bank Show: John Galliano (ITV, Sun), a programme I was predisposed to dislike for two reasons. The first was that it was "presented in association with the Sunday Telegraph"; the second that the subject was something that I have always thought inherently risible, namely haute couture - which is to real clothing what a Formula 2 racing car is to a family saloon.
There was plenty to justify my original prejudice. Galliano himself swanned about in costumes that seemed to have come straight from Errol Flynn swashbuckling movies: tights, doublets and "forsooth varlet" hats. With his odd moustache and weird hair he looked like a young Salvador Dali. Galliano showed us his costumes on the theme of "Anastasia escaping Russia", and all I could think was that I hoped she wasn't escaping in winter. Her exquisite breasts would have got frostbite.
His mates and fans were worse. Sao Schlumberger, "the Portuguese socialite" (as she was described in the Independent this week), was a sixtysomething
whose face looked as if it had been lifted so often that most of it was on the back of her head. Sitting next to Andre Leon Talley ("American Vogue") - a black guy in Napoleon uniform, got up as Toussaint Bougle L'Ouverture, the Haitian Liberator - she burbled on about Galliano's genius. Meanwhile chicken-legged pensioner Dodie Rosenkrans was wearing stuff from the designer's Indian collection. (Other recent Galliano inspirations include Palestin- ian women making bread and gypsies from the Ukraine, creating the irony of super-rich old western ladies paying a fortune to get dressed up like refugees.)
But. But there is something there - in the fabrics and the fantasy - that came out in this hagiographic show. I could just about see how the concepts became something tangible and beautiful (even if occasionally ridiculous), and might one day turn into a real dress that a real person might wear. True, the final Galliano Givenchy collection featured greater nippleage than Scandinavian movies like Inge I Have Lust or, indeed, than a TV classic adaptation. Yet it was rather magnificent. And wearing one of Mr Galliano's creations would practically guarantee you great treatment at the hands of your builder. Or, for that matter, anyone except a Dutch diplomat.
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