The Critics: Camera crew? All part of the service

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The TV personality of the week was undoubtedly a Mr Bateman. I do not know his Christian name, nor where he comes from; all I do know about him is that, on the night the IRA threatened to bomb the Grand National at Aintree, Mr Bateman made the huge mistake of turning up at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, to claim the room that he had reserved earlier.

Mr Bateman, a chinless Paul Whitehouse lookalike in his late thirties, was not alone. Thousands of thwarted racegoers were looking desperately for accommodation until the next day, when the race was rescheduled to be run. Oh, and a documentary team were filming there for a series that - several months later - would be shown on prime-time television: Hotel (BBC1, Mon).

The staff of the Adelphi were making hay while the sun shone. For once it was a sellers' market, and that meant that they could not only sell mattress space in their ballrooms at pounds 45 a throw, but that they were also able to suspend those rules of good manners and hospitality that so obviously irked them the rest of the year round.

So it was that, just as a bemused punter was being invited to pay pounds 199 (double the normal rate) for the last room in the hotel, not by a tout but by the eager receptionist, Mr Bateman first hove into view, pissed, and committing the first great documentary crime: gesticulating inanely at the camera. "Do you realise how silly you're going to look?" asked a staff member, clear that her first duty was to her future public rather than to her present customer. "Yeah!" he blustered uncertainly. "But I don't care!"

Oh dear, Mr Bateman. If ever the BBC crew and the director had felt any degree of ethical responsibility for you, it had now been expunged. Which was a great shame for you, in view of what happened next. With the pounds 199 having been paid over by the man in front, Mr Bateman had now come to collect the keys for his room. What room? Why, the room that he had booked earlier (stagger). But his room had been given away when he had failed to confirm the reservation at six. But tha's rdiclus! He had turned up at midday to confirm, and been told to come back later. And here - later - he was. Back.

Yes, said the receptionist, in a voice of icy contempt, but he couldn't have confirmed the reservation at noon (for reasons she never quite explained), because he had to do it sometime between then and six. He hadn't, and now he could - she implied - sod off.

Mr Bateman unsteadily contemplated the vista before him - drunk, 10 o'clock and bedless in Gaza - and decided that it wasn't fair. Something must be done. And something was done. All of a sudden he was transported from a nice hotel reception in the north-west of England, and straight into Brookside Close, with the belligerent entrance of general manager Eileen Downey. "Eh!" said dumpy Eileen, wagging a finger, "don't you start shoutin' at my recep- tionist." Mr Bateman, now in a state of complete confusion, protested some more; Eileen summoned up Malcolm the bouncer, and Mr Bateman disappeared collar-first, through the revolving doors - followed implacably by the camera.

Now, I ask you, what were Mr Bateman's rights in this situation? Had he been sober, Anne Robinson would have pursued his case against the Adelphi with Watchdogian vigour. But instead, he's a figure of fun the country o'er. And what about the rest of us? Given the number of fly-on-the-wall docs around these days - as Jeremy Beadle will shortly no longer say - "next time the star of the show could be you."

Well, if nothing else good emerges from all this, at least many fewer of us will feel disposed to booking a room at the Adelphi. So perhaps justice will, after all, be done.

Now, by pure coincidence, I had just completed the above section when I slid the tape of One Foot in the Past: Broadcasting House (BBC2, Fri) into the machine, and saw myself in a documentary. I had completely forgotten that while I was appearing relatively ignominiously in Radio 4's excellent News Quiz, someone had been filming the proceedings. Fortunately my part was very un-Batemanesque, consisting of a rather fetching listening shot - my index finger miles away from my nostril. But it did give me a jolt.

I wonder what Gillian duCharme, the game and redoubtable head teacher of Benenden, the girls' public school, feels about how she came over in Back to the Floor: a Class Apart (BBC2, Tues)? In one of the great old reliables of British TV documentary, she upped hockey-sticks and went out to teach the other half in a comprehensive in London's Forest Gate.

Before she got into her BMW and left the crenellated, ivy-clad walls of the 14-grand-a-year school and the oh-so-pink faces of her charges, Ms duCharme delivered herself of the view that "we're not really an ivory tower. Benenden is just a microcosm of society. It's not really that different". One of the great features of this predictably interesting film was that it showed that a highly intelligent and open-minded woman could deliver herself of a view at once so asinine and self-serving. Her school serves the most select elite in Britain, and was a microcosm only, one suspected, of the number of different ways in which one's parents can be a millionaire.

But Ms duCharme, whose faltering attempts at getting something into the heads of the Inner-City Class from Hell were followed with gleeful Schadenfreude by the Mr Scruff who normally taught them, was not cowed by the contrast. She effectively and loudly told her new colleagues over lunch that they were wrong about everything (which they probably were), and then finished off her stint by suggesting to the head that - in so many words - he was a useless, bureaucratic paper-shuffler who ought to get out of his office once in a while.

And I couldn't help thinking what I suspect the programme wanted me to think, which was how much more good Ms duCharme's determination would do for society if it were deployed on behalf of those kids who need it most, rather than those who already have everything. And, if I have one criticism of the show, it is that I wish Ms duCharme had been confronted more directly with this thought.

Gods knows what Arthouse: Big War in Liliput (Channel 4, Sun), wanted me to think. Not that, by the looks of things, it really cared what anyone thought of it. It was a completely bizarre film, supposedly about the attempt by some Hungarian businessman to re-establish a long-closed theatre of dwarves (or "little people" as they are more sensitively called) in Budapest.

But "about" is far too precise a word to use when describing a one-hour, disconnected and tendentious series of rambles through themes to do with art, money, pop culture, Eastern European history, exploitation and dwarfism. Whenever the film seemed likely to settle on one or other of these grand ideas, it shifted focus immediately, lest the viewer be in danger of getting any kind of handle on the material.

Was it about dwarves themselves? Yes, there was an obligatory mention of suffering under the Nazis, but the little people were hardly favoured with any right to speech at all. Only two of them were heard in the hour, for a total of less than 30 seconds. The film- makers themselves thus completely infantilised them, reducing them to the passive targets of manipulation by other people.

Was it about art and money? Hardly, for there was no art, and precious little money. Less than 20 people turned up to the first (and last) night of Ubu Rex. So was it about cultural rebirth? No, because (predictably) no Hungarians were interested in the resurrection of this marginal and ridiculous form of entertainment. Was it about the destructive homogeneity of modern capitalism, with most of the dwarves ending up miming to Western pop-songs while dressed as Smurfs? Perhaps, but were there no better documentaries that could have explored that theme?

In the end there are, I think, two possible explanations for this programme. The first is that it was a devastating parody of the kind of art film which has, somehow, disappeared up its own arse. The second explanation, of course, is that this was exactly the kind of art film that has, somehow, disappeared up its own arse.