Television: The strange case of Dr Hack and Mr Luvvie

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BEFORE THIS WEEK, I never thought Jon Ronson had the voice for a television career. It's a sing-song, effeminate bleat, with Rs that come out as Ws: imagine Jonathan Ross impersonating Mystic Meg. But on Critical Condition (C4, Wednesday), his new documentary series about critics, that voice is murderous.

Often, it sounds helpless, and the script that goes with it can seem just as innocuous. For instance: "Ian Shuttleworth has written a comedy routine that incorporates songs and funny anecdotes about his life as a critic." Harmless enough. But it's the infinitesimal pauses Ronson leaves before the words "songs" and "funny" which count. They're the faultlines through which you can catch delicious glimpses of his contempt.

The series started with comedy reviewers, in particular the Financial Times's Shuttleworth. Last year this gamekeeper turned poacher, and took his own stand-up act to the Edinburgh Fringe. Also in town was James Christopher of the Times, who walked out of every show he didn't like - ie, most of them. The two men are friends. Ronson said he hoped that Christopher wouldn't walk out of Shuttleworth's show. "I don't want an unpleasant scene to ensue," came the eerie voiceover, and we were left in no doubt that this was exactly what Ronson wanted.

Instead, something even juicier ensued. Christopher was on the judging panel of the Perrier Award (the stand-up comic's Oscar, in the sense that it's a big deal and that it hardly ever goes to the most deserving recipient). On Christopher's say- so, Shuttleworth's show went on the Perrier's longlist. As he heard the news, Shuttleworth fought back the tears. "Oh ... it's one of the things you don't let yourself dream," he gasped. It was a weird, weird sight. You could understand this elation from any other performer, but Shuttleworth should have known the secret of his success. He certainly knew that Christopher had walked in late and missed the first half of his show.

Stranger things were to come. Our anti-hero got a rave review in the Scotsman, but the newspaper's editors docked his rating from a superlative five stars, as submitted by the journalist, to a merely fantastic four stars. Shuttleworth was incensed. "I'm perfectly prepared to sing from the rooftops that they've been buggering about with the copy," he spat, a sweatier Alan Partridge. He didn't say whether his singing would include the verse about how the Scotsman's critic was a close friend of his too.

The stooping amateur we met at the start of the film - wolfing down cigarettes as he wobbled through his script in a nightmarishly empty auditorium - had metamorphosed into a purblind prima donna, and one suspected that Critical Condition wasn't a documentary at all, but a Ring Lardner short story: two conspirators pump-up a gullible ingenu's confidence, just so they can watch it explode. And explode it did. Shuttleworth attempted one stand-up slot in a roomful of professional comedians. He barely escaped alive.

This was gruesomely entertaining TV, and the best part was that it wasn't even a set-up. Shuttleworth and Christopher were auto-surgeons: they stitched up themselves. But if Ronson was fair on these two, he was hardly fair on critics in general. In the film, the one person who cared about Shuttleworth's unfair advantage was the amateur reviewer, Rory. And he cared only because he was a visitor to Grub Street, having won a competition to sit on the Perrier panel. Ronson held him up as "the scourge of industry nepotism", an outsider in the incestuous "world of critics".

This them-versus-us polarity was nice and neat, but it couldn't come about without some hefty stage management from Ronson. If he had chosen to buttonhole any other critic, and not Rory, you can guarantee they would have been just as appalled to learn of the cronyism. The film wasn't about the "world of critics", as it claimed, or even about the continent of comedy critics; it was about Ian Shuttleworth: Dr Hack and Mr Luvvie.

If this sounds like special pleading, it's because, yes, I was in Edinburgh reviewing comedy myself last year. I even met Ronson, mid-filming - his voice is much more normal in real life - but he didn't ask me to be in his documentary. Now, this was probably because I was a teeth-grindingly boring lunch companion, but it might just have been because he recognised that I was too conscientious, principled, and downright lovely for his purposes. Most critics go to a show, write down what they think of it, and don't have any contact with either the other critics or the performers. Not very good television, but the truth. Honest.

Trial By Jury (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, BBC2) should be a move away from comedy and critics, although the defence QC was quite a punster, and his opponent asked the jury to evaluate "the players in this case". The line between showbiz and the law was even more blurred than usual. In this docu-fictional blackmail trial, the defendant and witnesses were played by actors, the lawyers and the judge were real, and the jury were people off the street who treated proceedings as if they were genuine. Indeed, their deliberations on Wednesday were sometimes so tetchy that I wanted to take them aside and remind them it was just make-believe.

I could empathise with them, though. The case was allowed to unravel over three 45-minute episodes, and it was compellingly authentic. The lawyers were concentrating as much as they would in a proper court, and the actors improvised from extensive briefings, rather than reciting lines. This was the real thing, but better: court TV without the voyeurism.

Then came Verdict (ITV, Friday). These self-contained courtroom dramas probably wouldn't be too terrible in isolation, but if you compare them with Trial By Jury - which, by an infelicitous scheduling coincidence, it's impossible not to do - Verdict seems hopelessly phoney. Everyone is this series is an actor reading from a script - and boy, do we know it. There are no hesitations in the speechifying, no suggestions that the people onscreen might have to think about what they're saying. As befits a series with so many former EastEnders stars in it, the characters spend most of the time yelling at each other and bursting into tears - and that's just the lawyers. The jury isn't out on this one, I'm afraid.

At least we can be thankful that no lawyer in Verdict said to a judge: "May God grant you the wisdom of Solomon." That would be too far-fetched for any court case except a real one - specifically, the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, as detailed in Inside Story (BBC1, Tuesday). A 34-year-old Seattle schoolteacher with four children, Letourneau started an affair with a pupil when he was just 13. Both parties swore that their feelings were deep and mutual. They exchanged billets-doux full of split infinitives. They went to see Titanic together (in which, as we know, Leonardo DiCaprio looks young enough to be Kate Winslet's son). And then she had his baby. Earlier this year, Letourneau was tried for rape.

The story's dramatic arc was oddly reminiscent of Fatal Attraction. First, there appeared to be an argument for leaving the odd couple alone. Later, Letourneau came across as a severely damaged woman. She broke a court order to stay away from her boyfriend, neglectful of the years in prison that were bound to result. Before she was jailed, she fell pregnant again.

You can bet that Farrah Fawcett has signed up for the TV movie, but there was no need for the Inside Story team to embellish or editorialise. Everyone was given the opportunity to tell us their point of view, and this being America, everyone took that opportunity. Everyone, that is, except the boy, now 15. This being America, he refused to be interviewed without being well paid first. Mind you, he does have two children to raise.

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