TELEVISION; Married to the mobster

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Indy Lifestyle Online
HARRIET HARMAN, Hillary Clinton, the doshless Duchess of York, heartless Di who made Tiggy cry, and the 13-year-old Essex bride: for once, this week all of the supposed criminals on the news were female (though only one was in Labour). It was most gratifying. For the dubious privilege of a full-scale documentary about your misdeeds, however, it still helps to be male. I Married a Great Train Robber (C4) attempted to fasten itself upon Ronnie Biggs's sad ex-wife Charmian, but was inevitably lured away by the more unusual Biggs and his charmed life on the run. Everyone loves him, from the wife he dumped for a Brazilian (or two), to the policeman who trailed him round the world only to watch him disappear through yet another loophole.

Biggs is logic-less but affectionate. "There's an obvious bitterness involved in having been parted from my wife and children," he says, as if he'd no hand in his own destiny. He's full of self-justification, but at least he doesn't whine. Instead, he recommends Rio to any other British criminal who doesn't like jail, never pausing to consider whether Brazil really wants all of England's old robbers (perhaps his punishment should be to try and control this influx of louts). He's old now, the glamour's almost gone. In happier times, Charmian could probably have hidden him in her beehive hairdo. Now, plump and haggard, she sits in Melbourne, raking over the past. Cut to Biggs playing with his Brazilian- born son in the 1970s, wearing an assortment of terrible trousers. Arrest that man.

Theft of the Century (Omnibus, BBC1) was not about the theft of the century at all, but the abduction of one of the world's most hideous paintings, The Scream, from its spot on a wall of the National Gallery in Oslo. It only required climbing a small ladder and breaking a window. Anyone could have done it at any time, but nobody could be bothered before. Norway's proud enough of Munch to value the painting at pounds 48m - the paint-nappers, more modestly, asked pounds 700,000 for it in ransom. Instead of the usual finger, a piece of picture frame was left in a quiet country lane.

Militant anti-abortionists immediately jumped on the bandwagon, issuing faxes. They'd decided this was a good moment to announce that foetuses are worth more than paintings. Little white coffins were paraded about. But all that happened was that the anti-abortionists became the first suspects.

An expert from New Scotland Yard was called in. He set about getting cards printed to suggest he was from the Getty Museum, and booked into expensive hotels. He flew to Oslo with pounds 500,000 as hand luggage. But the rest was played out like some low-budget Simenon film, all subtitles, grey skies and (though very polite) shifty foreigners, against a background of dim 007-ish music. There were some sinister night scenes, risky meetings in lonely cafes, shots of the sedate urban landscape of Oslo (contrasted with helicopter views of Munch's lakeside summer place where he went all expressionistic), lots of lifts and stairwells and several mentions of a guy named Sid. Then someone, possibly Sid himself, got kicked in the balls, the hideous painting was returned to its rightful place and four people ended up in prison, much to the relief of the gorgeous but naive Minister of Culture who said "it was hard to believe that such evil things could take place" - and who would rather have been at Lillehammer anyway, watching the Winter Olympics. I couldn't follow any of it. But the anti- abortionists, who'd exercised their right not to steal paintings, seemed to escape blame.

From there to a still-life with men in suits, Dispatches' exhaustive account of Robert Maxwell's clandestine activities (Citizen Maxwell, C4). Well, I was exhausted, and I think Maxwell was too. Perhaps he just got sick of all the suits. There were in fact a lot of photos of him trying to alleviate the global situation by wearing a particularly cheery red tie, with yellow stars and blue squiggles on it, during meetings with Gorbachev, Yitzhak Shamir and others. He was playing games with the lot of us.

His love affair with Russia seems to have begun when MI6 set him up as the head of Pergamon Press, a front for gathering intelligence on Soviet scientists. He got along so well with Russians that the KGB was thinking of recruiting him, but he was too high-profile. That surely allowed him to dump MI6 too in the end. He became a multi-millionaire with contacts in all the right places and a media moguldom thrown in for fun. He tried to buy half of Bulgaria at one stage, and was probably engaged in arms deals. As if this wouldn't make him enough enemies, he dabbled in pensions in his spare time.

The programme was very hazy about Maxwell's origins, but finally admitted that most of his relatives had been killed in the Holocaust. This, they suggested, might have had something to do with his adoption of the Israeli cause in later life, at the expense of some warmth in his relations with Russia. Determined to help Russian Jews emigrate to Israel, he hectored Soviet leaders about their Arab allegiances, and banged his fist on tables a lot. Meanwhile he poured so much money into Israel that people put stickers on their cars, saying "Maxwell, please buy me". But most of his acquaintances found he promised more than he actually delivered, Gorbachev dubbing his unreliability the Max Factor.

This examination of Maxwell's influence on world leaders puts into perspective his ill-treatment of his sons, Marje Proops and others. For a man whose career began with interrogating Nazis at Spandau, niceness was probably not an issue. As for the mysterious death, it goes with the territory. Hitler, Elvis, Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe ... they all died mysteriously. It's part of the myth of importance, that the truly famous aren't mortal. They must have been pushed, or still be alive somewhere. But whatever happened on his boat, it was a good time to depart.

Back to female misdemeanours. It turns out that Barbara Cartland likes to speed along motorways. According to The Chauffeur's Tale (BBC2), she sits in the front passenger seat, listening to Perry Como. But once she yowled, "You fool! You've let me come out without my eyelashes," and they had to turn back. She's even worse indoors. If one of the Pekineses yaps too much, it can be sent zooming across the floor like a bowling ball. We got the dog's perspective here, of a rapidly approaching Chinese vase. On the plus side, Dame Barbara gives her staff an unlimited supply of honey and vitamins, and serves fish pie to ageing celebs every Sunday.