TELEVISION; Live, from my armchair

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THIS article is actually being written live AS YOU READ IT, sent to you straight from the offices of Canary Wharf, a big building in the middle of nowhere with a view of London on a clear day. Fresh, raw and dangerous, my new approach may sound perfectly designed to spread BSE, but in fact it is the latest thing. I am watching TV RIGHT NOW and will give you my immediate and unexpurgated reactions as they occur to me. Just let me get a cup of coffee ... Hey, who stole the milk?

What? Oh. I've been awakened by Nightmare at Canary Wharf (BBC2). Janet Street-Porter, the female Mick Jagger, her head drenched in red hair and every movement painful, is depressed about desks. She's trying to set up a live cable- TV channel under the beady eye of Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the Sun. And as if that weren't enough, she's got to do it in six months and her minions want to deny her a custom-built solid wood desk, because it's too expensive. Would Anneka Rice have to deal with such insensitivity? Later, Janet says she doesn't like desks after all: "They're something men invented to make women feel inferior." But surely the same could be said of TV - and was, by Janet Street-Porter, in her famous Edinburgh speech, when she named the three M-words characteristic of the medium: Male, Middle-class and Mediocre. All three came back to haunt her weird and wacky, raw, live-TV channel. Like 20 per cent of her staff, she was hired as the fall guy: within 12 weeks of the start of broadcasting, some trucks had failed to arrive and Janet had gone. In her place was rugby league and topless darts.

True, she doesn't have much grace as a boss. She says that being a perfectionist is a bit like an illness, and she duly comes across as a feverish child, having petulant fits. She bought a lot of technology that doesn't work, and her idea of news involves a presenter in plaid trousers running about the studio saying, "Lots of things happening in the world right now. Let's get some news with Imogen!" Imogen, collapsed in a chair, shows us a photo from a newspaper and expresses hearty concern about some disaster or other. This is real, this is live ... and it needs some good editing.

Lots of things happening in the world right now, including me writhing this live, by the way. (Whoops. Hold on. Technical failure - lost me Tippex. "Writing", not "writhing".) I'm learning how to watch these nasty Secret Lives programmes: you just suspend judgement, expunge all compassion and view the targeted personality as a pure freak of nature. Then it all makes sense. Howard Hughes (C4) was as freaky as several billionaires put together. After a promising start as a rich and handsome philanderer, Hollywood mogul and airplane enthusiast, he succumbed in the end to an extravagant form of shyness. Quite a life: you have affairs with all the leading actors and actresses of your time then retreat to the top floor of a Nevada hotel to sit naked among jars of your own urine, with just a few Mormons for company. He communicated with his "spokesman" by letter, daily. When the spokesman asked for a meeting in person, Hughes declined, explaining that if the fellow saw his physical appearance and the manner in which he neglected himself and his environment, he would never be able to represent Hughes with the same amount of enthusiasm. I know that feeling.

The chronology of the programme was haywire, zigging from the 1940s to the 1960s, then zagging back again, but it all added to the surreal flavour of the man who invented the largest plane on earth, flew it once, then preserved it meticulously for decades thereafter. His fortune was inherited from his father who'd made millions with his "Rock Eater", an earth-drilling bit that looks suspiciously like an egg-beater to me. Hughes designed a seamless, aerodynamic cantilevered bra for Jane Russell (who never wore it), and became so obsessive about germs that he had to write essays for his servants on how to open a tin (his method made use of the bath-tub and a lot of Kleenex). He objected to the Nevada nuclear tests because he could feel the tremors at his hotel, and in the end he was unintentionally involved in Nixon's downfall. But he was more likely to be found on the loo, where he sat for 24 hours at a time, suffering from constipation. Fun, eh? That's life, raw and unedited.

Sex with Paula (C4) was tame by comparison. Pouty Paula Yates strikes me as more of a flirt than a sex-pot - all you do in bed with her is talk. And she was talking to pop stars I'd barely heard of, so it was all a bit sordid really: we didn't know each other well enough. The stars and their tiny secrets were competing with their equally terrible music (the programme was made in 1986 and never shown, and you could see why). George Michael hesitantly mentioned masturbation, Patsy Kensit said she had once been thought to be a virgin, Robbie Coltrane picked his nose and Paula dutifully asked them all what they thought of love. Maybe it would have been better with the lights off.

Oops, I forgot this was LIVE. I stopped to think about what I was saying there for a moment. Let's plough on. The sexiest person on TV this week was John Hurt, playing a disreputable handler of stolen human beings in Saigon Baby (BBC2), an otherwise dull tale of an English couple living in Thailand who've suddenly become intent on adopting a baby. You know as soon as you see their treatment of the silent, down-trodden cleaning- lady that the guilt-ridden theme here is the corruption of the East by the West. The couple bribe the police, they buy a baby from a prostitute, they visit a whorehouse in which the women have numbers and are viewed through a window by Western clients in search of 14-year-old virgins to screw. In fact it's not until the wife (Kerry Fox) hugs her more-or-less legally adopted baby to her breast that you remember that the desire to care for a child is not really all that despicable. It was a mess of a film. The only people you felt any sympathy for were the totally absent Vietnamese mothers, who'd had their babies snatched against their will and installed in orphanages for the greedy eyes of infertile Westerners. Apart from an increasing attraction to John Hurt, who dis- appeared rather anti-climactically from the plot, it left me cold.

Slice of Life (BBC2) has been cheerfully charting changes in the British attitude to food since the war, from the makeshift arrangements enforced by rationing, to the move in the Fifties towards kitchens that looked more like scientific laboratories. The cupboards were airtight, and full of things in aspic! Luckily, such professionalism has now given way to stripped pine, butlers' sinks, dried flowers and microwaves, and the housewife has scarpered.

While Michael Howard attempts to save others from suffering Wayne Douglas's fate (dying mysteriously in a Brixton cell) by preventing them from entering the country in the first place, Slice of Life offered a timely reminder of the benefits of immigration, as exemplified by the influence of curry on the British consciousness. "British people are always afraid of someone coming in and taking over this blessed island," says sardonic restaurateur Shreeram Vidyarthi. "It has taken them 50 years to realise there's not much to take away from here. Everybody who comes brings in something." Of course, Swift had the answer to all such problems: eat the babies. Delia Smith could cook them live on TV.

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