Television: Queen's speech: this time it's personal
Sunday 28 December 1997
But who, I wondered, does the Queen picture in her mind's eye? A cheering crowd under the balcony of Buckingham Palace? A series of blobs of red on a map of the world? A cynical, fat, middle-aged man half-asleep on the sitting-room sofa, alternately snoozing, farting and complaining? Or does she think of the Blair family, fresh from church, all sitting round the table, the meal only awaiting the end of her broadcast, the saying of Grace and a smiling, "OK, kids, let's tuck in!" from Dad?
The latter, I'd say, judging from The Queen (ubiquitous, Christmas Day). For this was, in effect, a New Monarchy Party Broadcast, managing to incorporate the magic words of feeling - "unbearably sad", "the love of our friends and family" - and evocative images of the flowers in the park into an address that still assumed the naturalness of inherited monarchy (an institution that Augustus Caesar would have recognised) as we pass through the end of the second millennium.
It was pretty effective, even though Her Majesty (do you ever stop and think about terms like "Her Majesty", "His Royal Highness", "His Grace"? Enough of that, this is a television review) still intoned her words in the slightly hollow way that only people like monarchs and vicars do. I suppose it's because they spend so much time talking in echoing, vaulted, stone buildings.
But there are still corners where you can stumble across the unmodernised Britain. The antique division of the world into royalty and peasants lives still in the television works and crafts of Ms Vanessa Feltz, who is big on ITV and on Channel 5. The hoi polloi appear on her confessional studio show to bare their all in front of an audience of fellow serfs, who then - egged on by la Feltz - rip them to pieces with their bare tongues.
But it is a very different story when Vanessa encounters celebrity. Oh dear yes. Then no compliment is too great, no grin too cheesy, and no awkward stone is ever turned. For Christmas we were treated to a superb example of this obsequious genre in Vanessa's Big Day With ... (Channel 5, Tuesday) ... Paul and Stacey Young.
The idea behind this show is almost ascetically simple. Vanessa turned up at the vast house of the rock star and his missus, and then spent the day with whoever hadn't got better things to do. Which was mostly "former model", Stacey Young herself.
At the outset there were two interesting phenomena on view. The first was that every light bulb in the Youngs' horrible mansion had been turned on. I assume this was to provide sufficient light for the cameraman, in an operation that clearly had not budgeted for a lighting engineer, or indeed anything beyond Vanessa's own fee, and Vanessa's own wardrobe.
Which brings me to the second phenomenon. Many large people take refuge in dark colours: black, navy blue and so on, knowing that the inevitable folds and bulges, the contours of strained elastic will be less visible because of the darkness. Vanessa, however, is made of sterner stuff. For most of her day with the Youngs, she was outfitted in a jacket and skirt of unbelievable brightness, a pink in which every tiny bolt of freedom by any constrained part of her substantial body was immediately and distractingly visible. With her platinum-blonde mane on top, she looked like nothing more than a huge, gaudy children's toy - My Vast Pony. Except if you pulled her string, she talked. And if you didn't pull her string, she talked.
Until now this has been ad feminem stuff. So, Vanessa is very big, but I haven't seen 14 stone for some time either. What grates, though, is the sycophancy of her glossy-mag bromide questions to the rich and famous, questions about being both a rock star's wife and a busy career woman and mother. If Stacey Young were some underclassnik on Vanessa, would she have escaped questioning about the time her wonderful husband dumped her and she had to fight like hell to get him back? I don't think so. Then again, how long would Vanessa's Day With ... have lasted if she had asked questions like that?
That's the problem really with this kind of cheap telly. This is Hello! without the production values, Ruby without the wit and the guts. Instead of Wax, we have fat, and as a result the game is not worth the candle. Once upon a time Vanesssa Feltz was a sassy and genuinely funny writer; today, though, I think she would be hard-pressed to justify how her career has progressed.
Three Vanessa lookalikes - also large platinum blondes in red outfits - turned up at the beginning of the Eurotrash Christmas Special (Channel 4, Christmas Eve), to sing German Christmas Tralala songs. They weren't very good, but at least they were dressed. Most of the other participants on this extraordinary programme were not fully clothed. There were the men and women who - it was purported - were making the first nude aerobic video. The three naked girls were fairly ordinary and did their jumps unspectacularly. But in their midst was a black guy whose appendages suggested that someone had taken a large, plucked swan, covered it in coal dust, and then pinned it loosely to the insides of his thighs. And I wonder whether - with parents or guardians at the inevitable parties - Euan Blair or Prince William sneaked down to the living-room and got an eyeful of Mr Swinging Giblets?
If so, they would also have enjoyed the items on the Catalan nativity character known as "the crapper", who dumps outside the stable and whose image is available in all good Barcelona gift shops. Or the new sex aid, a fur-lined ring on castors, on which the woman reclines while the man, lying below her, rotates ring and woman, according (as they used to say on orange squash bottles) to taste. It was very, very funny.
Funnier still, when you think that you could instead have been waiting at the airport among frustrated crowds of fellow passengers for your flight to Russia, India or wherever. The docusoap Airport (BBC1, Tuesday) had been at Heathrow for the previous two Christmases, and reminded many of us exactly why we stay put.
Of course, it is precisely to see angry and desperate folk not get on their flights, or in some way fall foul of the system, that we all tune into Airport. Like watching heavy rain and thunder from the comfort of a warm armchair, there was something incomparably pleasurable in watching the Turkmenian Airlines people trying to find their aeroplane, only to discover (when they finally thought it was due in 20 minutes) that in fact it had just left Kiev. At Christmas, there is nothing better than turkey, sprouts and warm schadenfreude.
And then - on Boxing Day - a bracing ride to hounds. For, as Under the Sun: the Hunt (BBC2, Boxing Day) showed, hunting can be a spectacularly beautiful pastime. The fox outlined against a snowy field, the grace of the horses, the reds, the whites and the greens, all look wonderful. The other side of it (just as the unseen side of roast beef is blood-spattered abattoir) is the routine blood and brains of shooting foxes that have run to earth and - more pitiful really - the shooting of dogs that are too old to run with the hounds. "My way of thanking them," said one dogman gruffly, "is to put them down quickly, in their own environment and with no pain." "Their own environment" turned out to be beside an incinerator, where the animal was shot with a pistol, and then slung in to be burnt. There is a moment when lack of sentimentality can look like callousness, but I suppose surgeons are the same.
If the hunting issue is - as this film indicated - morally complex, then there were some very simple things on offer on Boxing Day. And none was more straightforward than Before They Were Famous (BBC1), in which celebrities in their earliest screen incarnations were shown by Angus Deayton to a studio audience, who then laughed incontinently at them. Leslie Ash was a Fairy Liquid child, and Martin Clunes put in a very camp appearance on Dr Who. The Queen wasn't there, of course, because she has always been famous. And Vanessa wasn't there either. Good.
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