Television: When truth is stranger than fiction

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WE BRITISH love a good elegy, and the repeat showing of Brideshead Revisited (C4, Sat) has given us a kind of double elegy fix. The first, of course, was Evelyn Waugh's own original obituary for stately England. The second was for the golden age of television - epitomised by Granada's Brideshead - that ran from Civilisation to Jewel in the Crown and is now, alas, lost, killed (so the myth has it) by franchise auctions and focus groups.

So was Brideshead as good as it was cracked up to be? Others in this newspaper doubt it, irritated by its languor and its subject-matter. I find it interesting to compare it with Mosley (C4, Thurs), which finished last week. In case this seems strange, you should remember that the two series covered almost exactly the same period of English history, from just after the First World War to just before the Second - each with a tiny epilogue set during the war itself.

So which is the better evocation of the period? To an extent any comparison is unfair: one is based on a great work of fiction, in which the author could create his own reality, and in the other the authors - Marks and Gran - are constrained by what really happened. Nor was it possible for them to do for the old fascist what Trevor Griffiths recently did for Aneurin Bevan in Food for Ravens. Bevan can be allowed to be a sympathetic giant; Mosley cannot.

One difference, of course, is the budget. Compare the Brideshead fox hunt and the Mosley fox hunt. One is a thing of epic beauty and movement, and the other just another load of stiff toffs on horses. Another is emotional depth. Brideshead exhibits an old-fashioned belief that the viewer will stick with scenes and speeches that are visually slow but emotionally rich. Julia's lengthy passage of tears and grief over her lost faith in the night-time garden at Brideshead is almost unimaginably long by modern (ie, 1990s) standards. By contrast, no one scene in Mosley takes much more than two or three minutes.

And let's take acting. In Mosley, only Jemma Redgrave as Cimmie really came up to the standards of a Brideshead cast which featured Gielgud, Olivier, Claire Bloom and Stephane Audran. Mind you, Redgrave was quite brilliant.

Strangely, Brideshead's sense of history itself seemed more secure - perhaps because it was written by someone who actually lived through the period. Julia's ugly-duckling sister, Lady Cordelia, goes to Spain to serve in an ambulance crew. Many will have assumed that she was with the International Brigades. But the opposite is true: she was on the side of Franco, the Falange and the Catholic Church. It is evidence of how the Spanish Civil War polarised British society. But the conflict is not mentioned once in Mosley. Even more weirdly, the suave Rex Mottram, Julia's politician husband, is somehow more convincing as a politician of the interwar years than are the real characters depicted in Mosley. And Rex is more menacing too.

Part of the problem here is the sex. The Mosley series was billed with the blurb: "Mosley: Leader, Fascist, Adulterer." This establishes the intention of the writers and producers very clearly. Imagine, for instance: "Hitler: Fuhrer, Nazi, Vegetarian", "Stalin: Bolshevik, Purger, Pipe-Smoker", or, of more recent provenance, "Thatcher: Mother, Monetarist, Flirt."

Because the sex - though true - is shown rather than implied, it makes Mosley a more ridiculous figure even than Sebastian Flyte; a driven, priapic Terry-Thomas. Overt humping always diminishes the man, just as the talk of Clinton's genitalia lessens him in comparison to, say, JFK, whose equipment was just as readily tested - but kept out of the public eye, so to speak. This contributes to the failure of very enjoyable series to convey the sense of possibility and threat of the times. The Twenties and the Thirties are not alive in Mosley. They are in Brideshead.

Unlike some others, I have no quibble with Marks and Gran's view of Mosley as an opportunistic, rather than a convinced, anti-semite. But it is interesting how anti-semitism, a relic of medieval times, lingers on. For about nine months, someone on the south coast regularly sent me clippings of my own articles, with an added original commentary scrawled in black felt- tip in the gaps and margins. This invariably suggested that Jews were unclean, unwholesome and unwelcome, and that society would be better off without us. Then the letters ceased abruptly. I like to think that my anonymous correspondent was visited by Death, as in the Allied Dunbar ad.

Anti-semitism also featured in the latest The Larry Sanders Show (BBC2, Tues), when Hank decides that he wishes to revert to the Jewish faith and begins to wear a yarmulka on screen, and to talk all Lionel Blue about his beliefs. Being Hank, he is not doing this out of conviction, but because he wants to get his leg over a toothsome woman rabbi. But pretty soon the hate-mail arrives in piles. His secretary reads one anti-semitic rant, and is then about to open another when Hank stops him; the envelope is marked with a huge swastika. In black felt-tip. This was both very funny and very dangerous. It takes an immensely confident grasp of the material and the characters to get away with comic risks like this. Larry Sanders does it week after week.

No risks are taken in The Life and Crimes of William Palmer (ITV, Tues), a banker of a true-crime story, featuring a serial poisoner from the mid- 19th century. Dr Palmer is played by Keith Allen with a pantomime menace that suggests the subtitle "Dr Palmer: Doctor, Poisoner, Lecher". He is a sort of anti-Bramwell, seeking to murder practically anybody that comes into his parlour.

The rubric begins with the invitation, "Why don't you stay a few days?"; followed by drinks, Oscar-winning retching, mouths flecked with dry vomit, plenty of white make-up, and a satisfying death rattle. Meanwhile, lamp-lit urchins go carol-singing in the snow, and ponies and traps clip-clop merrily down streets whose overhead wires have been cunningly disguised.

It's fun in its way, but I'm not sure that Allen's agent should have accepted this part on his client's behalf. Keith coasts through this, almost effortlessly. It requires no complexity (there are three emotions required: lust, avarice and spite) and there are no great lines or speeches. He's far, far better than this, and he isn't (I wouldn't have imagined) short of work.

It was unfortunate for Palmer that he lived in an era before programmes like Rough Justice and Trial and Error. Because if anyone could have saved him from the drop, David Jessel could. In Dispatches (C4, Thurs) the champion of the wrongly convicted was on the case of Louise Woodward as she waited for last Friday's appeal against conviction to be heard. Which was she: "Nanny, Victim, Teenager"? Or "Nanny, Murderess, Liar"?

Well, if she was guilty, I guess Jessel wouldn't have been there; he deals exclusively in wronged innocence. And sure enough, we opened with an exclusive "interview" with Woodward herself in which - in between swigs of tea from an overlarge mug - Jessel put to her searching questions like "Have you got friends here?" and "What will you study?" I imagine that the deal was that he wouldn't ask her anything as impertinent and irrelevant as "did you do it?"

The second half of Jessel's programme assembled four expert witnesses from Britain, who together made a very good case for believing that Louise was innocent of any crime - largely because there may well not have been one. It seemed quite likely that Matthew Eappen wasn't shaken to death - indeed, couldn't have been - and that some other explanation should have been sought for his death. Well done.

How irritating, then, that this entire enterprise was endangered by two substantial faults. The first was the consistent tone of partiality and bias in the early part of the programme, in which - for example - Jessel talked of "Louise's American nightmare", and her defence team were allowed - unchallenged - to complain about "poisonous pre-trial publicity".

And the second fault was the utter (and unexplained) failure to speak to anyone of a contrary view, whether the prosecution itself or any of the prosecution witnesses. In fact, the case against Woodward was tossed off as being a flimsy thing, the verdict being given solely because of the "passion, circus and witch-hunt" of the atmosphere in Boston at the time. (Jessel loves such rhetorical triptychs, also referring to the case being decided in "haste, anger and in error".)

At one point in his narrative, Jessel said that he had "needed to revisit the defence experts". This was 360 degrees wrong. We needed him to confront the prosecution experts and then to see how they dealt with the challenge of his evidence.

The failure to do this, added to the general use of positive words to describe Louise and negative ones to describe her accusers, made me feel that Jessel was trying to sell me something. In short, that he had become a counsel for the defence: one whose career depended on results, rather than on the strictest regard for the truth.