Television: Our Brucie: hasn't he done well?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"I WILL survive!" sang Diana Ross, as the finale to Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ITV). It was an apposite act of defiance in the face of imminent extinction - both hers and the specific light-entertainment tradition that the Palladium represented. The fabulous pink dress wrapped around her extraordinarily preserved body could not make up for the fact that the voice is going. It and 40 years of TV history.

This was a special event, a resurrection to celebrate the 70th birthday of compere Bruce Forsyth - probably the last great all-round entertainer to tread the boards. But it resembled the good old days of the Greats rather as the Lower Piddlebury Operatic Society resembles the ENO. There was an arthritic can-can by 20 ladies with ostrich feathers on their heads; a bare-chested German bloke in a hamster wheel; a pretty poor stand- up comic; Russ Abbott; Ronnie Corbett; a male Russian gymnast in diaphanous pyjamas, and the cast from Saturday Night Fever, the musical. Only Bruce himself, a charismatic mix of Jimmy Hill and Leslie Phillips, really impressed. They just don't make them like him any more.

Because things change. What was once thought good and likely to endure, now ends up a shadow of itself, a tawdry thing. A thing of rags and patches. Gilbert and Sullivan: Instant Merriment (Omnibus; BBC1, Sun) took us into the world of those who believe that Gilbert and Sullivan is as relevant today as when it was first performed. And - bit by sly bit - the programme showed, pretty conclusively (but without malice) that it isn't.

Here, the Canute/Diana Ross figure was a middle-aged, two-families Northern businessman called Ian, who organised and underwrote a major G&S Festival in San Francisco. With a cast of hundreds, including local enthusiasts and Anglophiles, he put on street events and theatrical performances, involving men and women dressed as Victorian sailors, judges, policemen, pirates, all prancing about and singing, "I am the Pirate King/ He is the Pirate King."

And, gradually, despite the translation of Iolanthe into Yiddish, or the former screw at Alcatraz who had taught Pinafore to the inmates, you realised that this was a museum piece: the artistic equivalent of furnishing your home entirely from the Past Times catalogue. The festival flopped; Ian despaired. "My worry," he said, "is for Oliver and the twins [his children]. When they are of an age to do G&S themselves, who's going to teach them?" And the phrase from the Hippocratic oath about "not striving officiously to keep alive" came to mind. Frankly Ian, Oliver and the twins will have other problems to deal with.

The good news is that the Mother's Union will be there to help them. Or anyone else who asks. In The Godmothers (Modern Times; BBC2, Wed) we had a glorious and affirming celebration of commitment. Here was a church- linked organisation of suburban grey-haired ladies - the very embodiment, one would have thought, of Daily Mail values - revealed as an association of loving, tolerant and amusing women.

We saw them earnestly taking up Jack Straw's invitation to consult themselves over euthanasia (our ladies were four-to-one in favour), and publicly - though politely - disassociating themselves from a homophobic vicar. Best of all, however, were the two stocky matrons who visited a church project in Uganda, and were caught up - joyously - in the dancing and singing that accompanied their visit. I hadn't fully understood the meaning of the word "radiance" until I saw their transformed, lovely faces. I intend to apply for membership on Monday.

But even the most easy-going, most tolerant and sunniest member of the most liberal branch of the Mother's Union probably hates Dr David Starkey. From time to time, Mother Theresa and Princess Diana may well have interrupted their ministrations to the dying, and cursed him for a fuckpig. Everyone in Britain loathes him. He has been rude, condescending and brutal with most of our more cherished sensibilities at one time or another. That's why no radio or TV programme which has "controversy" in its specification can do without him.

So when he gets to perform in his own serious series, Henry VIII (C4, Sun), it's payback time. The knives have come out, and have been plunged with glee into the back of Dr Starkey's gold-buttoned blazer, covering his tan slacks and brogues in critical gore. It is, they all agree, a stinker.

And they're broadly right. But, regrettably, it is not Dr Starkey who is to blame. He does a perfectly reasonable job in bringing our most notorious monarch to life. If anything he is over-restrained. But what on earth were the producers up to?

Series dealing in pre-20th-century history always face one big difficulty - no moving pictures. So the first thing that a producer has to do is decide what devices to use to provide an attractive and illustrative background to the spoken information that the narrator imparts. Ruins, computer-generated graphics, old portraits, dramatic reconstructions, modern-day counterparts and pieces-to-camera can help.

But not all together, for God's sake. We went to Madame Tussaud's, had Starkey in a tank, constructed a special Tudor jigsaw, used a Brie cheese to illustrate how much more populous 16th-century France was than England, and were offered recent library footage of Diana, Blair et al to illustrate modern parallels. The most innovative device (never used on a history programme before) was also the most distracting: the use of super-imposed, transparent actors - dressed as Tudors - to people panelled rooms and leafy gardens. It was like one of those late-Sixties adaptations of E Nesbit's novels, where characters de- and re-materialise in time, while expostulating, "I say Cyril, how wizard!"

No cheap gimmick was left untried. Which left me wondering whether this was really an under-funded series, or whether they had had to pay David Starkey so much that there wasn't much left over for anything else.

You see, there are some really expensive gimmicks available on the market, the best of which were on display in Budget (BBC2, Tues). A virtual- reality town, called Budgettown - a Trumpton for news producers - had been generated to illustrate the impact of the Chancellor's announcements. The Tiny Tots' Day Care nursery nestled up to Nuts & Bolts Ltd, while the clocktower looked down upon the most socially diverse neighbourhood in Britain. At one end of the street was the council block, then came the small cottage, the newsagent's, the terraced house, the semi, and, finally, the swanky pile. It needed only a cardboard box at one end, and Longleat at the other to complete the picture of the Classes of Modern Britain.

In front of Budgettown pirouetted the animated form of Peter Snow, who has eschewed tie-wearing altogether since his promotion to Tomorrow's World, and now sports lovely open-necked shirts in alarming colours. On Budget Day he was in bright orange, and resembled nothing so much as oil-well fire in a high wind.

And he performed miracles. After the Chancellor had finished, Snow conjured a digitised family out of each domicile in turn, to react to Gordon Brown's speech. For a few moments I wondered whether these people were real, or were also virtual-reality. But the fact that the newsagents turned out to be Asians convinced me that the families had been created by the computer. No human being would have been so unimaginative.

Finally ... Pride goes before a fall. One week you are granted the temporary accolade of Something-or-other of the Year, everything you do is attended by easy success, your editor congratulates you and warily awaits the contract re-negotations, and then

And then you fuck up. Last week, with magisterial certainty, I wrote that the current BBC adaptation of Our Mutual Friend was the first for television. Actually I wasn't sure of this, and in my original draft had written the weasel qualification "I think". This, my editors pointed out, was a cop-out: either there had been or there hadn't - it was my job to know. Since no one in the office could recall a previous OMF, "I think" was excised.

Oh dear. Thank you for the dozens of letters, some affectionate, some disappointed, some brusque and some, frankly, exultant. But all reminding me that there have been two previous OMFs - one in 1958 and one in 1975. The second seems to have made a particular impression, with Warren Clarke as Bradley Headstone and Ronald Lacey as Mr Venus especially memorable.

I have no excuses. I could and should have checked with the BBC. Next time I most certainly will. Sorry.

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