Television: Mirren shows her all is not lost

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It takes a lot of nerve to show off your naughty bits after 45. To be honest, only Helen Mirren could have got away with it. I am sure that other personalities - like Peter Snow, say, or Esther - are wise to keep their togs on. But the divine Helen gives hope to us all that there are great bonks to be had after the menopause.

The two-part mini-series that brought us another of those stately Mirrenesque rides on top of a panting man (four lucky men, in fact) was Painted Lady (ITV, Sun and Mon), an enjoyably daft thriller, in which Maggie Sheridan (Mirren) metamorphosed from C&W balladeer-cum-rock star convalescing in a country lodge, through black-bereted underworld sleuth, to end up as an avenging angel. It seemed to have been adapted from a book whose chapters were alternately written by Ruth Rendell and Jackie Collins.

As if this female ability to reinvent oneself were not morale-lifting enough for women viewers, Iain Glen, as Mirren's doomed aristocratic, heroin-addicted, bisexual lover, spent much of the time before his untimely death hanging from the ceiling wearing only his skimpy knickers. You knew he could not survive when he allowed a male lover slowly to stuff what seemed to be a whole pillowcase into his mouth during lovemaking.

This fantasy world of countesses and art dealers had only the heroin in common with Love Bites: Bumping the Odds (BBC2, Sun), a film about how love - between lovers and between friends - can barely survive among the rubble of the poverty-stricken inner city. Here, for instance, addiction is not a moodily lit romantic pose, but a disease that you catch from those around you, and which inevitably kills.

In Bumping the Odds, Lynette, unmarried mother of two from a Glasgow sink estate, falls for minicab driver Andy, who incurs debts with Davey, a vicious loan shark, so that he can replace her broken washing-machine. The loan shark is the squeeze of Terry, Lynette's best friend. But this network of relationships begin to fall apart when Davey comes for his money.

There were some wonderful things about this film. The episode that dealt with the activities of the Glasgow loan-sharks was utterly convincing, and included a chilling and logical defence of his activities by Davey that would resonate in any boardroom in the country. Shirley Henderson as Lynette was wonderfully hard and brittle at the same time.

And then I turn on my radio on Tuesday and hear some bloke on Kaleidoscope whingeing about the jerky camerawork and complaining that the Glasgwegian accents were incomprehensible. He really should get out more. The medium develops, and this form of Canted Camera is increasingly used in TV and cinema, where there is confused action or to convey mood. Most viewers accept it, just as they accept that we need not see every stage of a character's journey in order to follow the sequence of events. I presume the accent thing was just a clumsy joke.

Mind you, some producers are careless with their audiences. The first part of The Great Composers (BBC2, Sun) dealt with Johann Sebastian. And in the opening minutes a very intense and attractive woman called Karen Armstrong said this of Bach: "He was able to articulate the inner self of modernity. He was someone who forged our culture, at a deeper level than the purely cultural or philosophical. Bach gives to our fragmented lives a gravitas, a high seriousness, a sense of significance that takes us beyond the muddled present and helps us touch something timeless and eternal that is yet also deeply Western."

Written down, so you can return to it again and again, this is a difficult sentence. Spoken on television, it is absolutely impenetrable. It acts as a kind of gatekeeper, shouting at an unwary viewer who has strayed into the programme. "Hoy! You! Are you supposed to be here? I'm not sure you're clever enough!"

Which was a great pity, because if you stuck with this uncompromising film (no reconstructions with men in wigs, no psychologists, no pathologists), gradually the music itself, and the enthusiasm of the musicians and critics for it - their smiling eyes and words of love for Bach - captivated you. "Zat's seven 'armonies in 12 notes!" said one French musician, in raptures, and pianist Adam Schif revealed that "I play the Well-Tempered Clavier every day of my life. It's purifying, like taking a shower." They adored it, so I did, too.

Finally, we came to the Unfinished Fugue. A lovely pianist called Joanna MacGregor, all smiles and black frizzy hair, played it for us, the camera panning across the staves, until the moment at which Bach died, and the music, and the notes, stopped. It was a marvellous, sad moment of, yes, transcendence.

The Dambuster's March rather than St Matthew's Passion is David Pigott's cup of tea. But then Mr Pigott is not really looking for transcendence. Every year since 1958, he has helped put together - and latterly reported for - a 45-minute film of local events in an unprepossessing south Essex suburb. In Picture This: The Chingford Newsreel (BBC2, Tues) Mr Pigott, a balding, cardiganed man with specs and a dork's smile, talked to us about the changes he'd seen in Chingford and his love of making the newsreel, and showed us clips of newsreels past.

From the beginning, it was clear that Pigott had imbibed the ponderous language and counter-intuitive Whickeresque cadences of the newsreels of the 1960s, bits of which still infect our news bulletins today. "Ching- ford," he began, "on the - Essex-London border, 11 - miles from the - city of London".

This style of language had even entered his everyday speech. He had bought the record for his title music in "tin-pan alley, the home of the music industry," he told us, and later on, spoke of how "we've chronicled for four decades" the life of Chingford.

It would be easy to see all this as silly. There is the recent newsreel, in which Pigott comments that he has seen many big changes in Chingford, and "none more so than parking". But you realise, in a physical sense, that he is quite right. If you compare a photograph of any London street in the late 1950s with the same place snapped in the 1990s, the most obvious change is the way that the car has taken over public space.

Of course, Pigott's comic self-regard, his application to the mundane of the cliches of big news, his portentous "Mr and Mrs Eric Mayhew", instead of the Queen and Prince Philip, puts him firmly in the tradition of Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody, and his 1970s counterpart, Simon Crisp. He is unwittingly funny.

But he is also admirable. Despite the comedy, it is men and women like Mr Pigott whose obsessions and hobbies have given us volumes of local history and genealogy, have saved landmarks and reminded us of our recent past. Looking back, Pigott was genuinely surprised at his own achievement, the creation of this record. "We've done it," he said modestly, "without really knowing what we were doing."

That's why Pigott is a jewel to be treasured. So never mind Maureen Davies - of Driving-School fame - who now has her own record out: the show I want to watch is David Pigott Reports. Or perhaps Letter From Chingford, in which the man himself gives us his take on the big events taking place in Chingford in his own words. He is a little bit of a star.

Time for two apologies. I reviewed Tom Jones (BBC1, Sun) after the first, extended episode, and complained that it wasn't dark enough to sustain my interest, and that there wasn't sufficient nudity to take me through the long Sabbath evening. Well, I should have waited. Eventually, we had varlets with bad teeth, plenty of pox and prisons, Max Beesley's giblets on full view, and an attractive shot of Lindsey Duncan's body-double's body. So, in the end, an only slightly qualified triumph.

The second "sorry" is for chickening out of watching Innocents Abroad (C4), a two-part gloomfest from those who brought us The Dying Rooms. These films detailed the seemingly intractable problem of the millions of children worldwide who are being murdered, abused, starved, imprisoned or left to rot in asylums and orphanages. And had I thought that there was even the slightest chance of the films containing a call to arms, or offering a hint of a strategy to deal with the global poverty that lies at the root of this treatment, I would have put myself through the ordeal of seeing those pathetic, tiny faces.

But increasingly, we are moving back to the merely sensational (in the original sense of the word) or purely observational in our films, because viewers are deemed to have no patience with the analytical and the prescriptive. But "Isn't it dreadful?" won't quite cut it with me, unless it's followed by "And here's what we could do about it."

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