Television review

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It should hardly need stating that the history of people is often at odds with the history of a people. During the worst year of the Irish Famine, for instance, one of the young intellectuals, agitating for the end of the Union, wintered in Madeira for the sake of his health; his memories of 1847 were presumably very different to those of any Irish peasants lucky enough to survive. It should hardly need stating... but it is still one of the pleasures of People's Century (BBC1) that it restores such snagging irregularities to the sanded smoothness of professional history.

It isn't all good news. For me the enterprise is almost disabled before it begins by the decision to use voice-over translation rather than subtitles, whatever pressures have been put on the producers by international co- production. Where subtitles leave the grain of people's voices undisturbed, voice-overs erase them, replacing the sound of experience with the sound of an actor. At the most practical level you are deprived of intonations it might be instructive to hear, while at a vaguer, emotional level it simply seems impertinent, transforming voices which audibly declare their age and origin into a bland familiarity - the lips belong to a fragile veteran of the Russian Revolution, the voice to that of an account man from the Home Counties.

But, even so, once you'd got over the Cecil B de Mille introduction ("From his palace in St Petersburg one man rules over 170 million people... ") and the slightly breathless GCSE summary of the Russian revolution which followed, those personal accounts couldn't fail to seduce your attention. Most intriguing was to catch some sense of warmth from the embers of revolution, even though we have been raking over the ashes of Communism for several years now. When Ella Shistyer heard Lenin's dictum that "Communism equals Soviet power plus electrification", she promptly decided to become an electrical engineer. For her, you could still see, the revolution was as if someone had turned on a lightbulb, a radiant moment of new vision and new opportunities, and it was touching to have that reported without any attempt to deny her innocence.

This isn't a matter of evading facts. Shistyer later appeared to tell of her experiences in a Siberian prison camp, after falling victim to one of Stalin's purges, so she had better cause than many to know that her infatuation had been betrayed (she threw a knife at her first husband when he told her, truthfully, that Stalin had been murdering his opponents). Others remembered their sense of fulfilment and joy when working on parts of the five-year plan, ironically in conditions not hugely different from those later suffered by political prisoners. "We felt the whole world was ours," recalled one old man, "that we were working for ourselves." We may know he was wrong now but there is no revision of past happiness - the exultation was real even if its causes proved fraudulent.

It may be too early to judge People's Century, not just because it's a five-year plan itself. In these early years, the ratio of people to history is bound to be tilted in favour of the latter, for basic reasons of human mortality. Later perhaps, there will be less sense of historical primer and more of what is most valuable about the enterprise: the contradictory, untidy testimony of individuals.

Off Your Trolley with Loyd Grossman (BBC2) has clearly been picked up at the cheese counter, from its tacky game-show credit sequence to the paddling-pool profundities of its social commentary. Last night's programme was about the supermarket as meeting place and took an unconscionably long time saying a very short thing. Why the programme is going out at all on this channel, after Shopping did a similar job with more elegance and more thought some weeks ago, is a mystery.

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