LAST NIGHT

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The allure of the computer has not yet been fully exhausted for television producers, it seems. There was a time when it was hardly possible to turn on the set without seeing a cursor blinking across a screen within a screen, typing out the words that you could hear on the soundtrack. Recently, though, the device has been out of favour, so there was something almost nostalgic in the beginning of "If", an Omnibus film about Rudyard Kipling (BBC1). "This is more or less a true story," said the presenter, as he tapped away at the word processor on which he was writing those words. The computer featured later, too, in the shape of some slightly unconvincing Internet sites through which the programme's presenter, Mace Richards, pursued his notional search for a missing manuscript - Mother Maturin, a novel Kipling mentioned several times in his correspondence, but which was never published. Omnibus reconstructed the quest, from first chance encounter (Richards, a resting actor, happened to be driving past Kipling's house in Surrey when he heard Kipling's poem "If" broadcast on the radio) to unresolved conclusion.

The attempt to escape from the conven- tional modes of arts television was laudable, but unfortunately it didn't come off. Of course, other viewers might not have found themselves quite as irritated as I was by the supernatural trappings of the story (spectral children in an English garden) or by Richards' confession of literary indifference. "I don't read books much," he said, "does anyone anymore?" (at which point I found myself muttering that maybe he should sod off back to the small ads in The Stage and give the airtime to someone who does). But I think even willing participants in the fiction would have found the staged encounters between Richards and his informants stilted and unconvincing. It didn't help that he was obliged to present entirely predictable coincidences (that more than one person might advise him to read the short story "Beyond the Pale", for example) as mysterious serendipities, or that his relationship with a beautiful Kipling student proved a serious distraction from the literary content. Was the whole thing a chat-up line that had got wildly out of hand, you wondered, and if so, had it worked better in the bedroom than it did on screen?

They desperately need some computers in Game of War (C4), a wildly ill- conceived military history series. The format is simple: two senior generals refight a historic battle, advised by military historians or hobbyists (one man was described last night as a "leading defence photographer", which I assume is a person who likes taking pictures of tanks and guns). Each is in a separate, windowless room, and they are linked by two referees who apply the rules and throw dice to decide the outcome of each strategic move. Then the generals take stock and do something else, moving little red and blue counters around their map tables to try and keep track of the battle (money was no object when it came to tiddlywinks, it seems). I am, as it happens, quite interested in military history (anyone who thinks this an implausible taste should read John Keegan's excellent book The Face of Battle, which is everything Game of War isn't), but this programme about the Battle of Naseby left me utterly routed, quite unable to face another engagement. Angela Rippon presents, employing the embarrassing conceit of a live broadcast, complete with down-the-line interviews ("A good day for the Royalists then, Ian?") but her chirpy OB manner ("Well - it's mid-morning on what we hope is going to be a very warm and sunny day") does nothing to illustrate the realities of combat. There was a brief surge of men-at-war rhubarbing on the soundtrack at one point, but then it disappeared again, leaving the generals to murmur and confer in arid silence.

It tells you very little about the original battle (because this one unfolds quite differently) and not much more about strategy (because generals are better at making decisions than explaining them). It's only connection to real war is that it is very, very confusing once the action begins.

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