Television: A sauna? Now that's hot
Sunday 04 January 1998
If so, Mothertime (BBC2, Sun) was about us. Its dysfunctional professional family consisted of a drunken ex-concert pianist mother (the sexy Gina McKee), a "barrister and media darling" absentee husband (the gorgeous Anthony Andrews), his former book editor and current girlfriend (the smouldering Imogen Stubbs) and - in addition to the three sprogs named above - the eldest daughter Vanessa (the dazzling and precocious Kate Maberley).
The sauna, in an area of washing machines and exercise bicycles referred to as "Daddy's gym", was played by a FinnHeat DeLuxe (pounds 7,750 plus VAT - installation extra), constructed from Scandinavian pine. It was an object of some interest to me, as I have always fantasised about receiving special guests in the steamy comfort of my sauna, and then setting about them healthily with birch twigs. Except not my parents.
What I never knew about these FinnHeats was that they came equipped with external door locks and - presumably hidden under a hinged bench - a lavatory and washroom. But when Vanessa and her siblings shoved abusive, drink-sodden Mum in the sauna on Christmas Eve, they managed to lock her in from the outside and then keep her there till Easter. The idea was to get her to dry out and then to lure their much-loved father back to the home. She must have peed somewhere.
Anyway, for this ruse to succeed, Vanessa had to pretend to be her mother - whom nobody missed physically - by imitating her voice on the phone, and by forging her signature on credit cards. Even Mum's current (adulterous) boyfriend (a man who, called out of the bath, covered his bits with a copy of Campaign) did not try too hard to find her.
This is what happens. After DTs (two cockroaches and a vaseline-smeared lens) Mum is finally ready for reunion. Except, of course, it turns out to have been Dad's fault all along. He selfishly destroyed her musical career, drove her to drink, divorced her and wrote a best-selling book about it, and isn't fit to stroke her foot with a birch twig. He suffers the inevitable fate of philandering fathers in modern TV drama, being dumped by the book editor (who has just borne him a child), who then teams up with Wife One and leaves him alone, clueless and speechless. The moral, Vanessa was told, is that "you cannot make people love you." Which is true, I suppose, but not the whole point. If I had been the husband I would originally have wanted to keep the family together come what may. For the sake of the kids - and the sauna. Imogen Stubbs is damnably attractive, but I have waited so long for a FinnHeat Deluxe.
Let us suspend for a moment the question of who we are, and examine who our rulers are. According to Mr White Goes to Westminster (C4, Tues), they are a collection of shyster politicians, hand-in-glove with unscrupulous newspaper editors, playing their money and career games at the expense of a noble, but manipulated people. Mr White, essentially a fictionalised Martin Bell, beats a Hamiltonian duo, gets into Parliament and finds himself the victim of a smear campaign by the tabloids because of his affair with a lovely, unscrupulous, new-Labourite woman MP. Only the guts of an ordinary working-class single mother, campaigning against injustice, stops White quitting the battle against sleaze and compromise, in a world where new Labour is quite as corrupt as the shower they replaced.
Well OK, this is satire. But it is lazy satire. To depict all politicians and journalists as venal (except, of course, for hero correspondents), and all members of the public as rather admirable, is easy stuff. It's like blaming "management" for whatever goes wrong. I know a lot of politicians and they are - on the whole - a decent bunch, no better or worse than the rest of us. They are fashioned from the same stuff as we are, and constrained by us.
No, the really difficult and important satire to write - the one that would have sailed close to the wind and that Jonathan Swift might have attempted - would have been based, not on events in Westminster after 1 May this year, but on what happened just before and just after the death of Diana. For that told us things about ourselves that we never knew.
In Modern Times: The Shrine (BBC2, Tues), that weird week in early September came alive in a wonderfully paced and restrained documentary about the people who went to the park. It attempted no analysis, fielded no psychologists, spoke to no MPs or editors (though these things are fine, in their place), but simply observed and listened.
There, once more, was the sea of polythene, candles, geegaws, cuttings, mementos, children's poems and flowers. True, there were the sightseers, the gawpers, the seekers after sensation - but in greater numbers we saw those drawn by a sense of compassion and emotional community, leaving the isolation of the car, or the semi, and walking at night-time in the warm park; the dad feeding his baby, the man in the wheelchair with the kite, the woman with the social worker haircut and kind face, the crop- haired lad comforting his crying girl. One young woman said that her dad and mum were with her, but her dad wanted to go home. Another, older woman said her mum and dad were with her too. Except, in her case, they were both dead.
It has become fashionable since that week to talk about hysteria. Schooled in cynicism, it is hard for some of our contemporaries to admit that anything could be at once popular and worthwhile. But watching The Shrine reminded me instead of what - as an initial sceptic - I felt back in September. Which was a pride in how the people of this country behaved and acted that week.
All right. So if we're so good, I hear you cry, how come we deserved to start 1998 with something as dreadful as Happy New Year Live From Edinburgh's Hogmanay (ITV, New Year's Eve)?
You didn't. It's just that ITV have signed Anthea Turner and Phillip Schofield on extremely expensive and long-term contracts, have completely failed to find formats that make use of (or, rather, discover) their many talents, and wanted to get some value for their dosh before the year's end.
The trouble is that these two grins-on-legs don't so much make television presentation look easy, as pointless. They are almost purely physical beings; on live TV they have nothing remotely intelligent or interesting to say or ask. Taken one grin at a time, this vacuousness is relatively untroubling: it is merely an aberration. But if you put them together, as here, the effect is quantum. Jointly they suck anything gritty or edgy from the atmosphere, leaving the whole place muzzy and sickly. It is like inhaling candy floss.
Thus Anthea and Phil set the scene with bland enthusiasm: "Hello and welcome!" "Hi!" "Magnificent and imposing castle!" But as the various singing, comic and dancing acts were introduced Phil, at least, decided to convince us that he was in dangerous party mood, that - if provoked - he would shed that red "Phillip, wrap up, it's cold out there" scarf and overcoat, pop an E and make violent love to a Lowlands lassie. He did this by greeting each new act with the exclamation "yahay!" Or "aha" Or, a radical third permutation, "haha!" (though "yahay" was the most popular). If Phil has orgasms (a book has been opened on this), at the moment of crisis, he probably whispers "yahay!"
But at least he allowed us to discover what is really between Anthea Turner's legs. Now mad with partying ("yahay, aha, haha!"), he persuaded his co-host to part her little red riding hood coat, and to reveal that she was clasping a tartan hot water bottle between her black stockinged thighs. So, disgracefully, I started 1998 becoming sexually interested in Anthea Turner. And that's what kind of person I am.
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