TELEVISION : Monarchy? On TV, only the mob rules

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE BUSTLES were stored and the crinolines folded; the horses stabled and the stagecoaches mothballed. We were in Charles Dance-land, a Twenties world of Bentley convertibles and cigarette-holders, and the story was that old favourite, Rebecca (ITV, Sunday & Monday).

But while Daphne's original might have seemed sufficiently melodramatic to the easily satisfied pre-war public, Carlton's commissioners knew that a modern audience would require something more. So they ingeniously grafted the ending of Jane Eyre (romantic master hideously injured in doomed rescue attempt, is redeemed by love of simple girl) on to Rebecca, where the unnamed heroine (or Thingy, as I always think of her) spends the rest of her life with Maxim living in hotels and watching cricket matches, in a vain attempt to forget the past. Thus arbitrarily Rochestered by his producers, Charles Dance thereafter sports a bad limp and a black glove. But that is not the worst of it: the tuxedo obviously hides much. "We were not unscathed, of course," Thingy reveals in voice-over. "There will never be children." Nasty.

But let us not dwell upon Maxim's singed manhood, but rather be positive. I would welcome readers' suggestions for how other televised classics might be improved by matching the beginning of one with the denouement of another. I will then sell them to Carlton as if they were my own ideas. Or publish them in this newspaper.

What was very good about this Rebecca, though, was Diana Rigg's conversion of Mrs Danvers from pointless nutter to Suppressed Lesbian from Hell. "When Mrs DeWinter was alive," smouldered Rigg, in a voice charged with lost sensuality, "she and I always dusted the valuables together." Someone who can get her rocks off doing the household chores is not to be trusted to give good advice, whether it be "wear this costume madam", or "step out of this window".

Rigg had to be good, since she and the rest of the cast were competing with the original black-and-white film. This was entirely shot on a studio set, allowing Hitchcock to create surging seas and terrific storms. But in this version, filmed on location, the steamboat comes to grief on a completely flat sea and Thingy is not invited to dash herself on the jagged, spray-swept rocks far below, but on some Magnet Yorkstone tiles (pounds 15 per square metre) so close that the worst possible injury she might have suffered would have been damaged ligaments - painful, but not excitingly fatal.

And Charles Dance (good actor though he is) is no Olivier. This Maxim is all stiff upper lip and self-repressed Englishness; only when he hits the sack with the nicely breasted Thingy (Emilia Fox) does he unstiffen. In his attempts to infantilise his young wife, while hanging on to the memory of the old one, Dance's performance recalls another situation in which there were "three in the marriage and it got rather crowded". For Thingy read Diana; for Rebecca, Camilla; for Mrs Danvers, the Duke of Edinburgh.

It was perhaps appropriate then, that when Rebecca finished, we should find in its place the immodestly titled The Monarchy: The Nation Decides (ITV, Tuesday). An "egregiously frivolous extrav-agance" was how the Daily Telegraph pompously billed ITV's massive live event. Fergie has bought whole shops on lesser recommendations. But the Telegraph's bombast was outdone by Trevor McDonald himself, in his introduction to the extravagance. "There's only one thing that this country has been talking about this week," he told us, "and that's this programme!" Such self-serving hyperbole is acceptable from Des O'Connor, but sounds a bit daft coming from the anchorman of News at Ten.

To be fair, he and his pals had reason to be proud of themselves. The logistics for the live show made D-Day look like a beach holiday. Three thousand regionally assorted members of the public were in Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre, a cast of a thousand pundits was on hand, 14,000 telephone lines were recording the votes of two million viewers - all of it simultaneously. And it worked.

John Stapleton handled the live audience, talking to folks like Queen Margaret of North Wembley and Peter Stringfellow, and uttering Stapletonisms such as: "Are the Royals in terminal decline? And what are they like?" Mmm. Good question, John.

Roger Cook was dealing with the increasingly rebellious pundits in strangely subdued fashion. One was apparently the Ruritanian heir to the defunct Portuguese throne, the Duke of Braganza. "Sir," began Cook, obsequiously. Then he turned to Terry Waite. "I ..." started Terry. "You've got 20 seconds," interrupted Cook.

Dr Rosalind Miles (playing enlightened pro-monarchist) tickled me. An elected president was undesirable, she said, because he or she might well be "something like Jackie Onassis. Do you want that - a shopaholic?" The audience - knowing that this is exactly what the monarchy has given us - looked puzzled.

Subsequently several of those invited on to the show, and many others who write and broadcast themselves, have condemned the programme. A "pub brawl" was how Sir Bernard Ingham described it. (When I was at the BBC I seem to remember seeing a proposal for a discussion programme to be chaired by Sir Bernard. It was provisionally entitled Pub Brawl.)

I disagree. It was indeed Oprah meets the French Revolution, with heads on pikes and undisciplined laughing. But those who are offended by the lusty cheers and jeers of an audience that might otherwise simply have served as respectful clap fodder for the views of their betters, are really just snobs. Hopeless as a debate, the programme was riveting as an exposure of us to ourselves. This is how the monarchy is discussed in this country. And, as the Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond said, we discovered that "the genie is out of the bottle".

There was plenty wrong with it, of course. The critics' low opinion of ordinary viewers was - paradoxically - shared by the producers themselves, who vastly overbooked and then underused such expert witnesses as were available (some even took their places on Cook's great curve of a studio desk, only to disappear unquizzed and unshriven), for fear of boring those at home. And as ever, the adverts shown just before the final results of the poll were given made an interesting comment on exactly who the producers thought was at home.

These things are calculated and market researched, not left to chance. The age, class, profile and spending power of audiences available at certain hours for particular programmes are carefully assessed and ads placed accordingly. And judging by what appeared on screen there must have been a great deal of fidgeting going on in living-rooms throughout the nation. Ad number one was for something relieving the pain of piles. Then we were invited to sample Wind-Eze (for "trapped wind", apparently). In headache ads you are permitted to see the sufferer wincing in pain. The consequences of trapped wind, are, however, still not to be depicted. The lower-body hat-trick was completed by a commercial for Diflucan, a potion dealing with vaginal thrush.

In California such problems are probably dealt with by surgery. In Hollywood Lovers (ITV, Wednesday), we were treated to a description of how Californian ladies have fat injected into their outer vaginal labia so - explained the surgeon, helpfully - as to "increase the definition in their leotards". It is a comment on the mores of today that we were shown the disgusting sight of the fat dripping out of a tube and into a pot, but were not allowed to see the labia.

This was the show banned by Bruce Gyngell of Yorkshire Tyne-Tees (who is one of those Antipodeans come amongst us not to learn, but to teach), on the basis of its moral laxity.

But the real problem was not amorality, but yet more pessimism about the stickability of those at home. This is the world of the fast-edit, and no interview or shot (except for that of the fat) lasted for more than 15 seconds. Talking heads spoke a sentence, mugged to camera and were succeeded by a bust-level shot of an ambient babe. So an ex-stripper and "health guru" says of a friend: "I love her as a human being", but the intriguing alternatives are never explored. Another woman, who is putting yellow Post-It notes on her Tom Selleck-like hubby, tells us that: "He's very loving. I heard him talking on the phone to his kids every Sunday." He never speaks. And can someone explain what exactly is the difference between a Gay Matchmaker ("It's peace of mind that counts, not piece of ass") and a Fairy Godmother? After all, they both have wands.

So we get tiny, undifferentiated gobbets of sexy information, involving pubic charms (feathery talismans attached to the pudenda), Porsches, singles clubs and - above them all - the pilot who flies the mattress-stuffed aeroplane for the Mile High Club. Bleuggh. Meanwhile, at home, millions are watching all this glamorous sex stuff - while carefully making a mental note to go out and buy some Wind-Eze or Diflucan or Anusol or (if they are really unfortunate) all three. Or, as one Hollywood Lothario put it (in defence of seduction through pity): "Pathetic is not necessarily bad." Which is just as well for most of us.

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