The Arts: TV: Review

There is a natural connection between human and equine pedigree. Racing enthusiasts have been bred into their passion just as surely as the gleaming horses they adore.
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"She's a bit kinky but a very nice filly really." This being England and the voice being upper-crust, the man could easily have been talking about his wife. But, as it happened on this occasion, the horsey endearments were directed at a mount with hooves, out training near Lambourn. Riete Oord's Cutting Edge film (Channel 4) about the Jockey Club, the amateur elite who regulate racing, began as a kind of animated Stubbs painting - horses at exercise interspersed with men from rich bloodstock, talking about their love for the sport. They did so in a rather British fashion - understated, a little offhand, even slightly confessional - but in the course of the film it became clear how natural the connection between human and equine pedigree was. These people had been bred into their passion just as surely as the gleaming racehorses they adored.

It was something of a coup to get access to this world, and to go behind the doors of the Stewards Enquiry, a kind of horsey court martial which investigates irregularities and can overrule the results of races. Unfortunately, the Jockey Club also possesses the two qualities most likely to make a documentary-maker skittish and over-excited. The first is class, which always seems to arouse feelings of anthropological astonishment in film- makers. You'd think they might have got used to it by now, but no. Just let a man with a fat cigar wander by and you can guarantee he will make it into a faintly sinister montage sequence of toffs at play, with ominous music noodling away in the background (a popular cliche in modern documentaries, because it gives an air of purposeful motion to the most random selection of shots). The second quality is the slightest degree of wariness about the presence of cameras. This is invariably taken as a sign that the subject Has Something To Hide, rather than that they have sensibly learnt the lesson of other people's bitter experience.

So, instead of simply taking advantage of the Jockey Club's openness, Oord tried to suggest that she was fighting against the odds: "Wherever we went we found Mr Pipe and his assistant keeping a very nervous eye on us," explained the voice-over. Given that Mr Pipe was the Jockey Club's head of public relations he would have deserved the sack if he had done anything else, but for Oord his watchful presence was a give-away sign that she was close to the heart of a mystery.

The strongest impression left by this hugger-mugger self-dramatisation was not of the Jockey Club's secretive power, but of the director's ingenuous naivety. (I have, incidentally, yet to meet a documentarist who would dream of letting a stranger film his or her own life. They know that the interests of the director and the subject rarely coincide, and that even when they do transmission can perform a strange alchemy on what you assume to be an innocuous image).

There was horsey passion in BBC1's Joanna Lumley in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon too, most notably in a scene where the presenter kissed her little Bhutanese pony and confessed to a yearning to comb its mane. The title of this programme was far longer than it should have been, but in that it exactly matched the film, which, at an hour and fifteen minutes, left me feeling a bit saddle sore.

There were beautiful sights in her journey - in particular prayer flags rippling like a landlocked armada of devotion - and some comedy as well; in one scene a member of the Bhutanese royal family gossiped about Newmarket racing and took a phone call as if he was doing an impersonation of Patsy ("How are you doing old darling? Absolutely fabulous!"). But the splendour of the fortress-monasteries does not really increase with repetition and the long interludes of scenery reminded you of the strange agony of watching other people's happy memories. For all the elegance of its opening and for all the fascination of the historic film taken by Lumley's grandfather, this was a home movie - and it would have been wise to make it shorter.