Television: No policies, just sheer bloody politics

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Telly star of the week was Larry Hand, mayor of the Sydney suburb of Leichardt and political survivor extraordinaire. Larry was standing for re-election for a fourth mayoral term, and Rats in the Ranks (C4, Tues) was the story of his campaign to woo the six councillors whose votes were necessary to secure his job. It was the most entertaining factual TV I've seen this year.

The action centred around the four Australian Labor Party councillors, who could - if united - thwart Larry and get their own man in. But as their first caucus meeting made clear, they were not united. The conversation went like this: "There's not a secretary." "Yes there is." "There's not a chairman." "Yes, that's me." "There wasn't an election." "Yes there was. Last year." "Where are the minutes?" "Fred'll have them." Fred: "Not on me." And so on.

Eventually they did agree to put up a candidate, drew a name out of a hat, and solemnly swore (in the manager's office at the local swimming pool) to support their man. Larry was staring defeat in the face. So he got to work on the comrades and persuaded two of them to rat on the deal they had so recently signed up to. In the last moments of the film he was victorious, winner of a contest in which policy was not mentioned once, but in which politics was all around. British film crews can only dream of this sort of access to politicians.

Earlier in the evening we had seen the first of the endless series of pastime progs which are now pulling in the viewers on BBC2 and Channel 4. This one, Tool Stories (C4, Tues) was introduced by a man called George Herbert (named, presumably, after the great metaphysical poet - "I struck the board, and cried 'enough' ") who told us that we would be spending the next few weeks with DIY "phonetics", and then - metaphysically - disappeared never to return.

DIY is not sexy, and the only man of any real interest was the eccentric Harry Hatcher, who had built a large replica of a ruined Ionian abbey in his Essex garden. But the abbey had already been completed, so the job now was to ruin it (or, as Harry the Phonetic put it, to "inundate" it), using hammers, drills and massive violence. As instruction this seemed redundant, as even I know how to ruin something.

More positively, Harry made a device to hold a flaming torch on the newly inundated walls of Hatcher Abbey. It was, he explained, constructed from "a piece of two-inch copper piping, a plant hanger and - last, but not least - an empty tin of cat food". If an empty tin of cat food is not the least, then God knows what is - but at least DIY phonetics across Britain will not be trying to fashion medieval torch-holders out of tins full of cat food.

Meanwhile heritage and country life phonetics are best catered for in the several magazine programmes on BBC2. They usually consist of about six items - one day's filming in each - none lasting for longer than eight minutes. In One Foot in the Past (BBC2, Wed) we discovered Kirsty Wark in Paignton, where the steam-railway buffs have bought the c 1914 cinema and now want to turn it into a decorative lobby for their train station. Which is ironic, if not completely gripping.

Then a young, thin man called Simon did endless PTCs (pieces to camera) about the history of London's River Fleet. You see, the Fleet doesn't exist any more, so you can't film it. Which only really left the director with young Simon. So they filmed him instead: up a bridge, on a boat, walking across Hampstead Heath, in Smithfield meat market, down a sewer and - most surreal of all - with just his head sticking out of a manhole cover in Farringdon Road, as - one foot away - the wheels thundered past. God knows how many times the poor man did his little speech in this position (you never get these things on the first take), but I think the producer owes him one.

And owes us one too, for inflicting upon us Raine, Countess Spencer, and her view of Cheltenham. Actually I couldn't concentrate on Cheltenham at all, for Raine was in the brightest red outfit possible, matched by the brilliance of her lippy. But even these carmine explosions seemed drab underneath the truly outstanding feature - her hair. This was not so much big, as colossal - baroque, in fact. Brown, tinged with grey, it looked as though she had an enormous macrobiotic meringue on her head, one that she shook sadly as she told us that, "I well remember my darling husband, Johnny Spencer ... " Why was she there? Cruelly, I thought of the old children's rhyme: Raine, Raine, go away.

The opening titles of Tracks (BBC2, Thurs) featured a man bouncing up and down behind a hedge. Don't ask me why - it must have seemed a good idea at the time. Producers do these things to their presenters, the one in question being a chap called Nick Fisher, who sported an Eraserhead/ Raine Spencer hairstyle, and later took us with two old ladies and a Morris Minor on a short trip around Oxfordshire place names.

For those wilder moments our old friend Ray Mears ("wilderness expert") was on the River Wye in a canoe. Now, when it comes to wildernessness the Wye is not exactly the Amazon. Easily the most sensible way of eating in the area is to call in at a pub or a supermarket. But this is not disgusting enough for Ray. Why walk 10 yards to the local Londis when you can grub up the roots of the comfrey plant (leaving a bloody great hole in the riverbank) and stew it for 12 hours? Next week - presumably - Ray will be trekking across Hampstead Heath - carefully skirting the excellent Italian cafe and its pasta - and sucking the marrow out of live squirrels.

For another five minutes or so a nice blonde girl went fell running on Snowdon. Which was very jolly, save that I suddenly recalled reviewing a programme two months ago, in which the Snowdon Ranger bemoaned the damage being done to the mountain by these very same fell runners. Not a hint of any of that here, though. We'd done Snowdon, and were now off, like American tourists, to spend 40 seconds with the skylarks. Before they are all eaten by Ray Mears.

Kirsty Wark - in her other manifestation - fronted Newsnight (BBC2, Tues) on the evening that the Versace murder story broke. Part of her job was to talk down the line to BBC man Malcolm Brabant in Miami. They did not hit it off. Kirsty was still going with the early hit-man theory, while Brabant (a disembodied voice emerging from a passport photograph) now had the hot "gay serial killer" angle. A brief attempt at synthesis took place while Kirsty worked on an entirely new gay-serial-hit-man hypothesis, but by now Brabant was cross and unco-operative, answering the usual speculative questions with a sulky "It's difficult to say, really". The highlight came when Kirsty (in London) asked Malcolm (in Miami) whether the Versace family (in Italy) would fly out to America. The answer that Brabant clearly wanted to give was "How the fuck would I know?" But he opted instead for "I think they will, Italian families being what they are." Much more elegant.

The demanding nature of live TV was further emphasised during the excellent goodbye to the Royal Opera House - a must for all phonetical opera- and ballet-lovers - The Farewell Gala (BBC2, Sun 13 Jul). During the little wait for the "sublime" trio from one of Mozart's most popular operas, presenter Michael Berkeley had a few seconds to fill. So what should he say? For a man of his experience and fluency this would be no problem, so he embarked on the filling process with asperity and enthusiasm. But - in live telly - taking off is the easy part. Landing is another matter altogether. This is what he actually said: "Funnily enough, this is just one of several moments we have tonight ... that I think almost are those golden moments that occur on Desert Island Discs, or my own programme Private Passions; moments that somehow transcend the human idea of the er, the human spirit, and endeavour, and the vulnerability of human beings."

Not even the "sublime" Cosi fan tutte could, at that "moment", have transcended Mr Berkeley's human vulnerability. For this was a ramble so epic that even Ray Mears might have envied it.

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