Televison: The cosmetics of democracy

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Unwary viewers with half an hour to kill before last Sunday's roast may have tuned into On the Record (BBC1), and discovered - to their surprise - John Humphrys interviewing a dapper yellow-skinned man with rouged cheeks and a slight slant to his nervous eyes. It seemed, for an extraordinary moment, as though Humphrys had mistakenly drawn into his net an elderly Shanghai homosexual (shall we call him Toh Nee Blair?), who was originally booked on to the programme to recall Oriental gay life in the Thirties, but now found himself accused of the rape of 20 Cantonese virgins. "But John," protested Toh, close to tears, "People think I am a pletty stlaight kind of guy, and I am."

It really was the PM who was in the upholstered hot seat in Chequers. But unlike Mr Major, who always had his own lighting advisor and make- up person on hand (to minimise grey-out), Mr Blair had clearly been assaulted by a moonlighter whose main job is to slap the greasepaint on Widow Twanky at the Preston Alhambra every Christmas. His face looked awful.

He sounded, of course, much better. His aides having negotiated the interview to begin on his statesmanlike defiance of Saddam Hussein (what a useful man the Iraqi dictator is!), Toh benefited from a psychological boost right at the top of the show. It was a shabby deal, I suppose, but had I been the editor of On the Record (as indeed I once was), I would have done it like a shot. Sod the shabbiness.

From that moment on both Mr Toh and his interrogator handled themselves well. Toh began, astutely, with, "can I explain the sequence of events?" and outlined a history of l'affaire Ecclestone which was 90 per cent convincing. Metaphorically there had only been 10 virgins, and when they left the door of Toh's boudoir, though their clothes appeared slightly disarranged, all of them were intact. Nevertheless he would like to apologise. He was very, very sorry that he had forgotten what a bunch of suspicious bastards we all were. It had been silly of him.

So, should the Prime Minister have said these things on telly, rather than saying them to the House of Commons first? Well, of course he should. True democratic accountability is answering John Humphrys' sharp, sceptical questions in front of millions of viewers, rather than engaging in a sterile shouting match to an audience of 200 baying MPs. And with the camera going in closer and closer on your innocent, frightened eyes.

If a live Labour leader was the television event of the week, a dead Labour hero provided the medium's cause celebre. The scheduling of Trevor Griffiths's play about Aneurin Bevan, Food For Ravens, led to a row involving on the one side the raised voices of Griffiths himself, actor Brian Cox, and many sympathetic media observers, and on the other the largely silent BBC. Briefly, the beef was that this play was shown on BBC1 in Wales on Saturday (Bevan's 100th anniversary), but was networked in an insomniac's cul-de-sac on BBC2 at 11.15pm on Sunday. This was, for Cox and supporters, another sign of dumbing down, crass scheduling (scheduling, like marketing, judging au pairs and football management, is an area in which we all feel ourselves to be expert) and anti-creativity at the focus- groupy BBC. The show should have gone out on One on Saturday, displacing Casualty or the film, Scrooged.

Well, those who enjoy irony will certainly appreciate the BBC of John Birt being accused of pandering to populism. Can it really be a decade since his appointment was greeted with the gloomy prediction that his insistence on supposedly arid analysis and quality shows would lead to viewers deserting in droves?

Someone's changed. It might be Birt a bit, and it could well be his amnesiac critics. Whichever, there was actually no way that this haunting play could really have been shown on One. Most Britons do not know who William Hague is, let alone have the faintest idea about a politician who died nearly 40 years ago. Nor was this an Attenboroughian popular biopic which might have introduced the political neophyte to the father of the NHS. It was gloomy, difficult and elegiacal, with loads of long shots in puddles and close-ups of dying men with tubes up their noses. And its imagery and words stay with me still. Cox's performance does indeed (as he himself - eschewing obstructive modesty - has said) verge on understated greatness.

But could it, should it, have been given a better slot on Two, and provided with better trails? Yes is the answer, I think, but not last Sunday night. I won't bore you with the calculations, but I think that the perceived need to schedule Food For Ravens on an anniversary that no one even knew about may have been the real problem. Playwrights and actors really must learn to put the viewer first.

Still, Griffiths got his retaliation in early, placing in Bevan's mouth his own ambivalence about television the medium. "The delirium of television," as Bevan describes it to a journalist from the Guardian, "is an insult to our national intelligence. But I'll watch Hancock any day of the week." Would he have watched Food For Ravens instead, I wonder?

This perception of telly may owe something to the fact that praising stuff notoriously makes for worse copy than trashing it; malice is far more entertaining than contentment. So - as guilty of this sin as any other critic - I will expend a scandalously small number of words on Storyville: Nobody's Business (BBC2, Sat), easily my favourite programme of the year.

This is a film about a Jewish American father, Oscar Berliner, by his director son, Alan, told mostly through the son's recorded dialogue with his grumpy, querulous dad. It is also a film about family, identity, love, disappointment and belonging, told with wit, compassion and insight. Stylistically it reminds me of Nanni Moretti's film, Dear Diary, which similarly built very big thoughts up from the small stuff of everyday life: a car ride, snapshots, cine film and short snaps of sync. One illustration will suffice: when Berliner punctuates the most abusive of the father-son exchanges with black-and-white clips from a Forties boxing match.

In the end the dad, in his high-pitched, unmistakably Jewish voice, almost convinces you that his apathy towards his background and lost European relatives ("people live, people die and they're buried. What the hell are you trying to prove with all this?") is more honest and real than the son's very modern desire to go back to Poland and find his ancestors among the ancient Jewish graves. And surely, greater love hath no man than this, that he maketh a film about his father, in which the old man gets the best lines.

I cannot help this review ending on the same happy tone in which it began (next week I'll find something to savage) with Cilla (C4, Sat) - despite the fact that I thought I hated the Sixties pop star turned eternal celebrity. She came from Liverpool, made a million, seemed to turn her back on the poor (who bought her boring records), hosted numerous opiate light entertainment shows and - to cap it all - supported the Tories.

Oh but she's a gal, as this programme convincingly proved. She had said to herself at 17, she told us, that "I am going to be a star." And every sinew and effort was turned into making this prophecy come true. She put herself in the right places at the right times, did as she was told without demur and never, ever let herself be discouraged. Burt Bacharach put her up there with Dusty Springfield as a white rival to Dionne and Aretha. But Charles Shaar Murray described her voice as a "cross between a dentist's drill and a Grimsby foghorn". It doesn't matter which one was right.

Her greatest hit, "Anyone Who Had a Heart", was a cover version of a Dionne Warwick number, the release of which upset the great American singer. Cilla, interviewed about this, responded with the fabulous line, "Ah, Dionne, cow that she is. No, I love 'er. More than she 'ates me."

As her husband observed, summing it all up, "She's there. She can do it." And she can. She is a star. And it is unimaginable that she should ever appear on TV badly made up. If others want to be around as long as she is, they should take note.