Television: Conflict wins every time, no contest
Sunday 29 March 1998
Take, for example, the general who did a paint-job on four squadrons of his fighter planes. The mission: to make Soviet planes pass as Syrian ones. Only: "Our red stars are one colour only. But we needed four different colours - I remember green and black and something else. But we didn't have the right colours ... So that caused a lot of fuss ..."
This happened 31 years ago, in 1967, during the Six Day's War. It was remembered by General Reshetnikov of Soviet Bomber Command, speaking to the makers of The Fifty Years' War: Israel and the Arabs (BBC2, Sun). May 1967, you may remember, was when the young, disputed and rather small state of Israel decided to grab itself a bit of extra territory from the Arab lands around it - Sinai, Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank of the Jordan, and a goodly chunk of the Golan Heights. "Eshkol calls me," remembers the widow of Israel's then-PM, Levi Eshkol. "And he says Ah, this Golan is absolutely fantastic! The view's wonderful, he waxes lyrical ..." It was only at the very last minute that the Soviet planes were called off.
The Fifty Years' War was produced by Brian Lapping Associates, the people who made End of Empire and The Death of Yugoslavia. Like its predecessors, it proceeds by clipping together exhaustive face-to-face interviews with every single protagonist the makers could find (the only absent principal is Yasser Arafat). Generals, diplomats and politicians are filmed at ease, dressed in their civvies. Unusually for generals, diplomats and politicians, their contributions are concrete and succinct.
I have heard it said that this programme is austere to the point of boring. Here's one guy in a tie going blah, blah, blah in Hebrew. Here's another guy going blah, blah also, only this one has an Arab name. And then there's a quick burst of newsreel footage featuring hills and/or fighter planes and/or refugees. But the very essence of drama is supposed to be conflict, isn't it? And if the story of Israel isn't one of conflict upon conflict, then I really don't know what is. Plus, the cutting is fast, trenchant and aesthetically exciting. Languages, tactics, ideologies just whizz round the room as you watch. As scholarship, as history, as a triumph of dynamically balanced political reporting, this is documentary television at its best.
Only last week, this paper published an essay by David Thomson which warned, inter alia, that in Hollywood, "drugs are necessary". Aha, I thought, sensing a project at hand: throughout The 70th Annual Academy Awards (BBC2, Tues) I was tireless in my search for tell-tale signs. Jack Nicholson, I observed, hid his pupils behind his eyewear. And Alec Baldwin was sniffing a bit, especially when the little wife went up to collect her prize. Though I suppose that could have been emotion. Whoever thought Kim Basinger would ever make such a comeback, after that trouble about the film with her in a box? But MC Billy Crystal did make some strange remarks about how he'd been "drinking coffee". It was a long and weary night.
This being "Oscar's 70th birthday", a couple of extra-special fillers were laid on. All the actors who have ever won an award and, as they say, lived to tell the tale, lined up on stage for "Oscar's Family Album". Plus, Oscar put on a little showreel in which scenes of every Best Film since 1928 had been clipped together: The Great Ziegfield, It Happened One Night, Midnight Cowboy, Annie Hall ... The biggest claps went to movies which starred actors both present and still worth sucking up to, eg Dustin Hoffmann. The Woody Allen got very few claps indeed.
From this week onwards, you can see The Jerry Springer Show - you know, that controversial talk show from the USA - not once but six times a week (ITV, Mon-Fri lunchtime, Thurs late-night). Now according to one school of thought, Jerry Springer is the omphalos of all evil. He does shows called things like "I Slept with My Sister's Three Husbands" in which people fess up to terrible sins, live and direct to the loved ones they have sinned against. One person breaks down in hysterics. Another sets about beating up his or her girlfriend/parent/whatever. Whereupon they are pounced upon by the bouncers and dragged away, with a chimps' tea- party of an audience going Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! It's exploitative, brain- rotting prolefeed. Or so this school would say.
Others, however, don't see matters in such an apocalyptic light. Isn't it just karaoke with knobs on? OK, so your life for sure is not problem- free. That's why you cry when you go to the movies. That's why you think Gloria Gaynor was singing just for you. So why not cut out the middleman and act out your very own melodrama on TV? Instead of getting "I Will Survive" on autocue, you have the support of a well-worn script. You "confess" a bit. You cry. You do the obligatory psychobabble, and then you pretend to beat your whatever up. Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! The great thing about doing a turn on Springer is that for a moment or two, you don't have to be ashamed of your afflictions, or worried about burdening other people with them. Afflictions are accepted - nay welcomed, nay admired - by audience, crew and anchorman alike.
In Ruby Wax Meets ... (BBC1, Sun), the garishly besuited tykette reported direct from the Springer set in Chicago. In the queue on the way in, she latched on to a fat white woman who was wearing a jersey with a panda on it, and a "fanny pack" - ie an American bum-bag - whose contents included a "bear-size" "feminine pad". "What is it about pandas?" "Have you ever gone on a diet?" "Have you ever been a man?" This last question did not come from nowhere. A significant proportion of Springer's fans will leave this life with bodies quite different from the ones they grew up in. Some have had sex-change surgery, some have had cosmetic surgery, and many are obese.
The "theme" - as they call it - of the Springer show Ruby attended was "Women Who Are Keeping a Secret From the One They Love". One of these, a Pamela Anderson-type woman with false bosoms which looked like they had been a bit incompetently installed, was engaged to be married to a Tommy Lee-type man. Except that she was also sleeping with another woman. So she explained matters to the both of them. Whereupon the both of them walked out.
Ruby spent the rest of the show striding up and down various corridors and dressing-rooms, shouting and flapping her arms about in her customary way. Ostensibly, she was mediating peace between the disconsolate lovebirds ("Where's the Lesbian? I gotta see the Lesbian now!"). But really, she was just being Ruby and showing off about it: a somewhat Jewish-American- Princessy Jesus, laying her all-accepting hands upon the freaks.
Now there are three things any sensible person would ask of a contributor to Jerry Springer. How much do you get paid for this? You've made it all up, haven't you, just to get on TV! And: Oh, come off it, Mrs Woman, you're telling me your boyfriend travelled all the way to Chicago without having a clue as to what this was all about!!! So what in fact did you talk about on the plane??? But then it would be John Humphrys Meets ... wouldn't it? Which would be a different thing.
"It's a triumph of tenacity over content," mused Wax's pal Paul Jackson, now Head of BBC Entertainment, on a largely tedious First on Four profile of our little friend (C4, Wed). Though Ruby did talk about her experiences with the RSC in the late 1970s: "I was clearly not a good actress. That was said to me by many famous people, Ian McKellen, Ian Charleson ... I'd come off stage and they'd be mouthing, 'You were really bad'." Well if you can't beat them, be ironic. Thus Ruby's subsequent career.
Ruby has worked hard to build up her own special web of showbiz-or- showbizn't-she illusion, and she has taken her knocks on the way. So she'd hardly be the one to ask the obvious questions, would she? It would be like attacking her own livelihood with a pair of nail-scissors. And she isn't yet ready for that.
David Aaronovitch returns next week.
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