TELEVISION: Something fishy going on
Sunday 11 February 1996
The Suburban Sisters (BBC1) are a bunch of silent Benedictine nuns who moved to Chester a few years ago from a monastery set in 25 acres by the sea. The reason for this move was not forthcoming, but perhaps 10 nuns don't need 25 acres: their numbers are going down. I couldn't see why. It looked a good life to me (if you can bear all the praying); a perfect, well-run commune in which you share chores and keep quiet. One nun said that you could get intensely irritated with the others and that this caused "anguish", but the fact is they all seemed happy as clams. They're convinced they're doing good just by pottering about the house all day - a rather convenient belief, given their circumstances.
Ruby Wax, on the other hand, seemed to think goodness was personified by Pamela Anderson (Ruby Wax Meets ... , BBC1), all 36 silicone inches of her. There was something agonisingly deferential in Wax's approach, especially since her ultimate intention is to humiliate. But the suck-up tactics worked surprisingly well, eliciting confidences from the queen of wet dreams about the size of her husband's member ("He's not outrageous, he's bigger than average"), the frequency with which Pamela removes offending pubic hair (every few days), and the fact that she doesn't give a toss about foreplay.
She also wants to have a baby. Ruby affected to feel such concernabout stretchmarks gouging that million-dollar torso and natural droop returning to those rock-hard breasts that she insisted on teaching Pamela some pelvic- floor exercises in her trailer. These were not the kind you can do while standing at a bus-stop; they involved imagining that the all-important orifice is picking up fluff from the carpet. To the delight, no doubt, of the few male viewers who would know what the hell she was doing, Pamela valiantly gave it a try.
The juxtaposition of Ruby's obsessions with the Baywatch team's was truly inspiring. She was very funny when asking extras which was more lucrative work: throwing the ball or throwing the Frisbee. This was easy, since the extras were full of self-mockery anyway. But there were moments when you wondered if Ruby actually would quite like to look like the anorexic Pamela and spend her days exhibiting portions of flesh for us on the beach. They could call it Bikini Wax: more talk-talk, fewer medical emergencies, but equally plotless.
Watching TV folk do somersaults trying to understand Cezanne is also fairly entertaining. They have suddenly noticed that he once existed, and they are informed by all their advisors that he was "great". At any time of night or day this week you could turn on the TV to be told that Cezanne was important. Such sage and helpful evaluations are often followed by a look at seven or eight Cezanne paintings in quick succession, accompanied by a little Chopin. The hype is like a cloud of locusts descending on him; but the reason 50,000 people have already bought tickets to the show is that he's not so easily crunched up and spewed out. Omnibus (BBC1) seemed to have it right, taking an oblique look at him through the work of other artists, including the poet Liz Lochhead. The paintings looked, well, great. There seemed some point after all in showing them on TV; the screen illuminates them from behind as if they were stained glass, and blurs some of the eccentricities I've never quite grasped. But the bathers looked as fabulously peculiar as ever.
If the stagehands are treated as cruelly as the ballet-school children, it's no wonder The House (BBC2) has its industrial-relations problems. But the stage hands have a union and Acas to come to their defence. All the kiddies have is a scary Madame who tries to discourage director Anthony Dowell from choosing any of her charges for a part in The Nutcracker. They should all have had a solicitor present. She says a half-Japanese girl can't possibly play the part of a Russian girl (why not?), another has no personality, another won't be able to concentrate. Do parents actually pay this woman to teach their children to dance? In the end the sad little rivalry engendered by all this was prolonged by Dowell's needing two girls to be ready to play the main role, no one knowing until the last moment who would get to dance on the opening night. Again, I thought of the reject's parents, in their seats in the front stalls.
Behind the scenes the icky personnel man, Mike Morris, was creating a little power struggle of his own, between himself as hatchet man and the men who actually pull the strings (that make fake snow fall). If the Opera House was better subsidised, it could do without such strife. But there'd still be the enmity going on down in the crush bar, where two bartenders haven't spoken to each other for decades. One sings, the other juggles. It's a bit like Punch & Judy.
Scott of the Arms Antics (C4) was not only a terrible title but a rather kindergartenish attempt to instil in the hoi polloi some understanding of the Scott Report. The programme makers seemed to think the material was either so difficult, or the viewers so dim-witted, that it could only be fed to us as soundbite pate, garnished with humour. Satire would have done.
Sheena MacDonald was there, smiling determinedly, and Rory Bremner made some sub-standard jokes. The best lines came from the politicians and civil servants themselves: " 'unquantifiable' can mean unquantifiably large or unquantifiably small" (Tristan Garel-Jones); "the intended use of machines should be couched in such a manner as to emphasise the peaceful aspect to which they will be put" (Alan Clark); "I don't see why you shouldn't have a rigorous implementation of a flexible interpretation" (David Gore- Boothe); "something that I was not aware had happened suddenly turned out not to have happened" (Major).
But pointing out the absurdity of it all seems to reduce the impact of scandal. In a less neurotic country, such evidence as this of perjury, cover-up and lies - proving the Government is run by gangsters - would be reason enough to oust the whole rotten crowd. Here, you languish in a three-year inquiry, make a few jokes about judges on bicycles, and sweep it all under the carpet. What we should be saying is: "Up with this I will not put!"
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