Television review

Is it possible to have a sense of humour and be a member of the Church of Scientology? Simply on the law of averages you imagine it must be, but you can't help feeling it would be a serious handicap to advancement within the organisation.

You would, for example, have to steel yourself not to grin whenever you saw that deliciously absurd photograph of the mullet-lipped founder, staring beadily at a tomato that has been wired up to an E-meter (a photograph which raises the question of whether tomatoes have bad memories too, and if they do, how they pay the substantial fees that Scientology requires for every stage of its healing ministry?) And if you were required to spout the B-movie jargon on which Hubbard's garage-built religion rests, there would be the constant danger of an ill-judged giggle. Halfway through persuading someone to cash in their pension-plan so that they could attain the status of an Operating Thetan, you'd have to disguise your involuntary splutter as a coughing fit.

On the other hand how could you have a sense of the ridiculous and not burst out laughing at this mish-mash of Buck Rogers and hand-me-down Freud? You would, surely, have to be bad or mad.

In its assessment of Hubbard's career as a self-styled cosmic saviour, Secret Lives (Channel 4) opted for an unpleasant cocktail of the two. They began by demonstrating that he was a man for whom lying was as natural as breathing - and, initially at least, nearly as innocent. Every delusive exhalation was designed to enhance his glamour and mystery. His grandfather's modest livery stable was retrospectively converted into one of the biggest ranches in Montana, and Hubbard's mundane boyhood into a life of frontier adventure in the saddle. After an out-of-body experience brought on by dental anaesthetic, Hubbard became convinced that he had more to offer the world than science-fiction pot-boilers, and developed the "science" of dianetics, which treated all illness as psychosomatic in origin. Hubbard claimed to have cured himself of wartime blindness (a disability not recorded in his military medical record, unless you take a decidedly hysterical view of conjunctivitis) and promised to extend the benefits of his wisdom to others, in return for sizeable wads of cash.

Towards the end of this engrossing film a former member of the church described what happened after Hubbard had died - an awkward departure, given the guru's teachings on mind over matter. It was finally announced to the faithful that Hubbard had checked out of his earthly shell and gone on an extended research trip to the next plane.

"What's amazing is how the Scientologists bought this," said the man, "without any questioning!" His astonishment suggested that he still hadn't quite got the point. In truth it would have been virtually impossible to come up with something that Scientologists wouldn't swallow whole - it was a church built on the granite foundations of human gullibility. Of the handful of escapees who talked here, it was telling just how many had been close to the centre of the organisation - where the contradictions between Hubbard's increasingly brutal behaviour and the sanctimony of the organisation's public face could not be ignored forever. But, as the church reaction to this programme has already demonstrated, those spared an intimate encounter with this psychotic quack find it all too easy to maintain the faith.

Not everybody runs away from life in the same way. In his BBC2 film "The Bubble" (Modern Times) Daniel Reed looked at those who retreat from hard choices into the down-insulated, high-altitude nirvana of an Alpine ski- resort. His film beautifully caught the strange wooziness of these surroundings - a pristine world of swooping falls and effortless ascent. The soundtrack was lovely too, combining collages of raucous laughter and tinkling music boxes in a way that accentuated the strange dissociation of living in a place where fun is the highest aspiration.

But in the end, though, his structuring metaphor - that of a novelty snowstorm paperweight - was just a little too accurate. Every now and then you'd feel the energy sinking away and he would have to pick it up and shake it all over again.

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