Television: 'Daddy ... what's an alcove?'
Sunday 01 February 1998
Dayglo-bright in salmon shirtsleeves, Snow was a strange and charming mixture of incredulity, boisterousness and current-affairs sobriety as he guided a rotating panel of American guests through the lubricious details, punctuating his questions with the odd sly reference - as in Clinton's attempt to "retain his dignity and his trousers", or asking one guest, "how far into the speech will we forget the trousers?"
There was so much innuendo that occasionally, an unintended double entendre slipped through the net. As when Snow turned to one analyst and asked, perfectly seriously, "suppose it's a limp performance tonight?" It was a perfect encapsulation of the difficulty that serious news bods had all week. At one point, after a bulletin in which the possibility of "oral sex in an alcove" was mentioned, my seven-year-old turned to me and asked, "Daddy, what's an alcove?"
Halfway through the show, some of the cast changed, and in came Steve Hess, a presidential historian and greybeard from the prestigious Brookings Institute. Snow turned to Hess apologetically: "We're going to have to talk about sex. I'm very sorry to have to ask a man of your probity about it." The women on the panel, with whom Snow had been swapping semen stories for half an hour, were scandalised. "You asked us!" they chorused, offended by the suggestion that their willingness to talk about sex had suggested - to Snow at least - a lack of probity. In fact, the distinguished historian, like everyone else in America, adored talking about sex, detailing the peccadilloes of such giants as President Grover Cleveland.
Finally, a rumpled Christopher Hitchens, down the line from San Francisco, gave as good an explanation of the link between Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky as I have heard. It was all to do, he said, with the modus operandi of Clinton and his associates. It was the cover-ups and the lies that mattered. I couldn't decide whether he was inspired, or just a bit bonkers. "Remember Revlon," was Hitchens's last sentence; if you hear the word again, you will know that Hitchens is vindicated.
"Remember Revlon" could also have been a line from Heat of the Sun (ITV, Wed), another tale of decadence and sexual intrigue, this time fictional. God alone knows that this enjoyable piece of nonsense had borrowed words and themes from everywhere else. It was as though a committee of badly- read but enthusiastic TV executives had convened and brainstormed for an hour on the theme of "detective series set in expatriate Kenya, 1935". There were bits from Biggles, Out of Africa, White Mischief and several Hitchcock movies, and lines that were old when Bunter was a lad. The names were all invented by this same process: Tyburn, Lanyard, Lady Daphne Ellesmere, "Boy" Cameron, Muller (the German), und so weiter.
Tyburn, played by Trevor Eve - along with Neil Pearson, one of the most watchable men on telly - is a disgraced, rebellious copper, sent to Nairobi. You can tell he's a heroic mensch of action because (a) he is the only policeman in the entire Kenyan force who doesn't wear baggy shorts, and (b) he is what McCarthyites would have called a "premature anti-racist", beating three drunken native-abusers into a bloody pulp within seconds of his arrival. The abused native, by the way, is one of the very few signs that the films are located in a place where there actually are black people. In this costume drama, with its yellow biplane, vintage cars and lions, negroes are essentially props, to be seen in the background with baskets on their heads.
OK, says the committee, what now? First, this is the Empire. So within 40 minutes Tyburn has been called bwana, effendi and finally (thank God for Kenyan Asians) sahib. Check. Tyburn has a bigoted, corrupt boss. Check. His sidekick (Lanyard) vomits at the sight of a dead body. Check.
But all this is not ridiculous enough. Let us have a gay club owner called Chico Deville (presumably Cruella's damaged nephew); let us have the blonde love interest captured and tortured in an empty hangar by a German with an eye-patch who threatens her breasts with a cigar while muttering sadistically, "You vill tell me, liebchen!" (Really.) Let weeny Lanyard turn out to be the murderer because "She laughed, and she carried on laughing!" Let Tyburn ask him, "Do you really think that you're going to get away with this?" And finally, have Tyburn gaze at the setting red African sun, turn to the blonde, and say: "A man could lose himself in such a place."
Yes, indeed. But how much would it cost? On Wish You Were Here? (ITV, Mon), the travel programme, we were told what a trip to Kenya would set us back. But the whole item lasted one minute and five seconds, and was so hurried that I missed it. Which set me to wondering what these programmes are actually for.
They are - most of them - very similar. A vivacious blonde woman welcomes you in with a fantastic smile, lays before you a menu of desirable destinations (including her own), in which various personalities will spend seven minutes shopping.
On ITV, Anthea was camping in Biarritz and Dale Winton was in Milan. Winton's report exemplified the genre. He "shopped till he dropped", made a joke about how long it had taken to build the cathedral (he had met builders like that), spoke to a funny foreigner, and did loads of charming little turns to camera to show us what a love he was. It was all fantastic, stunning, gorgeous, and all that. The title of the show was, for once, an exact reflection of the contents. This was a series of unenlightening glossy postcards sent to viewers by pampered celebrities.
The main difference in Was It Good For You? (C5, Thurs) is that the latter is not glossy. The presenters here (an obligatory blonde and a young Irishman) were in Prague, because "there is more to holidays than sun, sand and sea." This is the kind of universal cliche that disfigures most of the genre. It was no surprise that in Prague people "shopped till they dropped", and that the cathedral had taken 500 years to complete, because of "a problem with the builders". Haha! Where do they get them from? It is very hard to write like that on purpose. This was a postcard from someone you don't like.
Holiday (BBC1, Tues) had Jill Dando - whom I adore - in "stylish" Paris. In a wonderful penthouse apartment. This, I was delighted to discover, cost only a very reasonable pounds 565 per week. Based (we were quickly told) on six sharing. While yet another young Irishman blarnily tested Lanzarote for two minutes, I worked out that Jill's apartment would actually set one back about three and a half grand a week. I think we should have been told that.
Then there is The Travel Show (BBC2, Wed), introduced by, er, a vivacious blonde woman (Juliet Morris). And here we encountered, with the Independent's Simon Calder, the first bit of actual writing for television so far. Calder (and, to an extent, Fi Glover, his companion) had really gone to the country (in this case, Hungary) rather than simply using it as a changed studio background against which to perform yet another flawless piece to camera. Calder, at least, is the real thing.
Then, finally, just as I was beginning to think that some piece of deep psychological research must have shown that we will not go anywhere on holiday unless we believe that a young, grinning blonde woman is going to be there too, Travelog (C4, Tues) appeared. This, rather formidably, was billed as being presented by two disabled people, and I made the mental note that this was a level of worthiness that I could do without.
Wrong. Firdaus Kanga's trip - wheelchair and all - to the Cote d'Azur was magical. He wrote beautifully about the place and his relationship with it, and s poke his own words in a lovely, gentle, camp voice. I wanted to go there at once and experience its decadence. And I'd take Jon Snow, Trevor Eve, Simon Calder and Firdaus with me.
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