What will Blair be found doing in No 10? Having his hair cut, presumably
In A week when hair has become the most important issue in British politics (edging out tedious and intractable problems such as poverty and famine), it was appropriate that the first shot on the huge multiplex screen behind David Dimbleby on US election night was a 30ft close-up of some bloke's hairdo. Thus began Decision '96 (BBC1, Tuesday).

In a large corner of some enormous public building (inadequately soundproofed from other broadcasters, obviously transmitting from the other side of the sheets and plywood of the BBC set), David Dimbleby, Peter Snow and a cast of retiring US politicians analysed and speculated for more than five hours.

In Little Rock, a reporter called Bill told us of the mood, and how luminaries like Sharon Stone "and per-haps Sean Connery" were expected at the celebration party. Over at Republican headquarters we were introduced to a nutter who was obsessed by the need for anti-missile shields, and the wide-mouthed Gavin Essler was on the White House lawn for no particular reason.

Dimbleby, of course, was brilliant. Not that you would have noticed it - but then, that is the true test of his brilliance. To keep a live show going for a whole night, balancing what appears before you on the big screen (once the hair has cleared), the studio guests, the talkback from the producer in the gallery, and all without confusing Hillary with Liddy, is a trick worthy of any acrobat.

My problem, as ever, was with the quality of the analysis that was available to Dimbles. Several times, for instance, we heard that "Bill Clinton is the first Democrat since Franklin D Roosevelt in 1936 to be re-elected for a second term". This was uttered as though something deeply significant about the state of the world was revealed by it. But of the four other Democrat presidents since FDR, two decided not to stand again, one was assassinated, and only one - Carter - was defeated. So this fact was about as meaningful as a comparison between Presidential coiffures ("David, he is the first President with small curls at the nape of his neck and a side-parting").

The Americans on the show were clearly nonplussed, however, by Peter Snow's famous graphics. This wonderful Don Quixote figure, his elongated arms windmilling before him, was demonstrating the progress of Bill Clinton up the White House lawn ("there he goes, past the 100 mark") towards his final goal. When, at about 3am, Clinton achieved the magic 270 electoral- college votes, Snow reached his exuberant climax. "We go in through that window, and into the office of the White House" - where a cardboard cut-out of the Comeback Kid was sitting behind a virtual reality desk. I can hardly wait for the general election. What will T Blair be doing when P Snow discovers him inside Number 10? Having his hair cut and blow- dried, presumably.

The second race of the night was the one the Democrats lost - that for the Houses of Congress. These too were graphically represented (they turned through 90 degrees, the dome lifted off, and the little seats turned blue or red) in their Classical glory; a glory that was explained in the first part of Robert Hughes's wonderful American Visions (BBC2, Sunday), a series which he described as a "love-letter to America".

The Capitol building is part of early America's love affair with ancient Greece and Rome; a love affair exemplified by one US college's group of Young Athenians - a bunch of students who wear skimpy togas as an "outward expression of our gratitude" for classical civilisations. Had this been Aston University, one would suspect toga-wearing of being an outer expression of their desire to get their legs over.

Hughes brought us pleasures and delights of all kinds: unexpect- ed painters, lovely buildings and - above all - beautiful writing. One rotunda was described as "the round cranium of the university", a painting of a man and his wife was "an ideal Republic of two". And there was much more.

It was only when the bulky Hughes (who wore the same pale- blue shirt throughout) - having visited the Lincoln Memorial - turned on more modern forms, that I began to take issue with him. "The speed and pseudo-intimacy of television," he said, "have destroyed the classic ideal of the great monument, as they have destroyed great rhetoric ... can you imagine anybody caring two hoots today what the statues of Reagan, Bush or Clinton would look like?"

But who, a hundred years ago, would have cared two hoots about the memorials for Presidents Chester Arthur, James Garfield or Martin van Buren? And is not the Vietnam Memorial (which Hughes rightly praises) a product of the television age? "Look," said a woman, whose son died 30 years ago, "he's right here where my lips can reach him." This was not pseudo- intimacy.

Television's praisers and detractors could have found plenty of arguments for their opposed cases in Watching the Box (BBC1, Wednesday), in which viewers recalled their relationships with the medium. True, there were some fearsome couch-potatoes, but I was more struck by the desire of the inhabitants of Marig in the Outer Hebrides to tune into the nation from which their geography has isolated them. "On the nights when reception is very poor, it's really heart-breaking," said one woman crofter. Another was seen struggling up a hill, under the weight of a large aerial, as her husband fed her instructions by mobile phone. The whole scene was weirdly reminiscent of Jesus carrying his cross to the Mount.

But my favourite moment was the revelation by an astronomer, Dr Alison Campbell, that she had experienced hot feelings when watching Virgil, the puppet pilot of Thunderbird 2, and that a gay friend had later admitted to a similar crush on Scott. Perhaps if, as a lad, he had seen Marina from Stingray, his whole sexual orientation might have been completely different. That hair, those scales!

Which thought brings me to the last part of Rhodes (BBC1, Sunday), and the discovery that the famous man's last words were not "so much to do, so little time to do it", but "turn me over, Jack". I thank the BBC for this insight, and commend them for their courage in trying to turn a complex piece of history into a TV drama. This is not easy when your principal character and hero is a repressed, ruthless bastard. Had the Beeb been prepared to play a bit more fast and loose with the truth they could have got Liam Neeson to play Rhodes as a romantic lead, and have him indulge in soft-focus face-chewing with Frances Barber in the middle of the veldt. But no, they played it straight - incomprehensible Cape politics and all - allowing ITV's big banana, Marcus Plantin, to exult that it was "a lesson to the BBC that history lessons are not what's wanted in the prime-time schedule". He's got a point - a 90-minute play on BBC2, which took more dramatic liberties with the truth, might have had more impact. But surely we should applaud an ambition that ITV signally lacks.

Marcus Plantin would presumably not have approved of the main guest on Clive Anderson All Talk (BBC1, Sunday). Instead of Sharon or Sean, Clive had Mikhail Gorbachev - with interpreter - in the hot seat. If Mr G could have anything change in the history of Russia, Clive asked, what would it have been? "I would have wanted the February Revolution of 1917 continued," replied Gorby. Three people in the studio audience knew what he was talking about, but I don't think it mattered.

What would Mikhail Serge-yevich have made of Absolutely Fabulous (BBC1, Wednesday and Thursday)? Or Robert Hughes? Would they have seen beneath the jokes about running machines and vibrating bleeps? Or got beyond the surreal appearance of Marianne Faithfull as God? There was plenty here to be pleased about. Like Patsy and Edina discussing the line from the Sixties hit "Where Do You Go To, My Lovely" in which Peter Sarstedt sings "You sip your Napoleon brandy/ and never get your lips wet". "How do they do that, darling?" asks Eddy. "Drink it straight from the bottle", replies Patsy.

But come on, there's something bigger going on here. It is the marriage of left-wing Sixties hedonism (hippies, drugs, sexual fulfilment) with right-wing Eighties materialism, in a union of selfish guiltlessness. Standing against it is Saffron, a Tony Blair figure, who represents boredom, decency, community, responsibility and sobriety. This week - in the end - hedonism won out. And a good and genuine politician was pilloried for his haircut.

CAPTAIN MOONLIGHT'S DIARY

THE CAPTAIN REGRETS: Captain Moonlight has left on a sea voyage. He may be some time. Thereafter he will be living quietly in Frinton-on-Sea. He has asked us, meanwhile, to pass on his farewells and to thank you for allowing him to intrude upon your Sundays these past few years. Next!

Read our new diarist, Thomas Creevey: main section, page 21

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