The Critics: Television: Opportunity knocks at the closet door
Sunday 21 December 1997
In The Works: Hughie Green - Mr Opportunity (BBC2, Sat), we discovered that this odious man, with his awful transatlantic drawl and a mouth which - when puckered - resembled the anus on a cuttlefish, was savage to his family, abused his children, was a serial adulterer, a pain to work with, a right-wing would-be coup-plotter and a self-important fantasist. Given which, you cannot help feeling that Paula Yates - allegedly his love-child - turned out rather well, really.
The glory of this film lay not in the plodding narration ("it is now clear that behind these catchphrases lay a very different Hughie Green"), but in some wonderful editing and interviews. In particular Vic Hallums, "personal assistant to Hughie Green", brought an almost filmic cockney vocabulary to bear on Green's affairs, telling of one night when Green is having it away in the dressing room, while "his current mistress and her mother are getting oiled in the bar, and at the stage door is the little soubrette he had serviced that afternoon, and given a good seeing to!"
But it was what Hallums described as "a little kerfurtle" with the wife of colleague Jesse Yates - as revealed at Hughie's own funeral - that has led to Green's most recent, if posthumous, brush with immortality.
In the end, his habit of calling Thames executive Jeremy Isaacs at three in the morning to discuss contracts led - Partridge-like - to his demise. A broken man, he retreated into bitterness; a bad chap, and responsible for some truly terrible telly.
These days, such rooting about in the the dirty- knicker drawers of the rich, famous and - usually - dead is a mainstay of C4 and BBC2. It satisfies the slightly tacky desire for juicy revelation, in the defensible context of history or culture.
But sometimes it goes wrong. As it did in Secret Lives: JFK (C4, Wed). Billed as a "profile [which] portrays his darker side", the film was based (though we were not told this) on journalist Seymour Hersh's book, The Dark Side of Camelot, which has caused outrage in the States, with its allegations of links between Kennedy and the Mob. Indeed, the film stated baldly early on that, "now there is evidence of a deal between Giancana [the leading Chicago mobster] and the Kennedys," and interviewed Tina Sinatra, a Mob lawyer called Bobby McDonnell, and a former lover of both Kennedy and Giancana, Judith Campbell Exner, to testify to these links.
Last week also saw the publication of a demolition of Hersh's book in the New York Review of Books, by a brilliant man called Garry Wills. So when I came to the film I used my Willsian eyes to look at it. And what I saw was not good.
Let's take the Mob connections. Tina Sinatra claims that her father, Frank, was used as a Kennedy-Giancana go-between. She must have been about seven at the time, and thus have learnt about Giancana later on, from her dad's lips or someone else's. Yet she never quotes her father or any other source directly. Odd, that.
But if Ol' Blue Eyes was "it", why then was Judge William Tuohy also used as an intermediary? Well, if he was, it was only according to McDonnell, who - though we weren't told this - is a disbarred ex- alcoholic and twice-convicted felon.
Then, despite these two links (Wills asks whether there was anyone in America in 1960 to whom the Kennedys did not go, asking for a way to meet with Giancana), we have Judith Campbell Exner, who - she claims - was given papers concerning Castro and Cuba to take from Kennedy to Giancana. In the film she says, "I knew they dealt with the elimination of Castro. That's what Jack told me." Her story of almost suicidal indiscretion in the White House was improbably "corroborated" by a TV presenter called Johnny Grant, who bumped into Judith in a bar, and to whom she immediately spilt the beans about the President, the Mob and the Cuban missile crisis. And he then waited 35 years before telling anyone himself.
Yet this implausible tale was represented in Secret Lives as fact. As were the entertaining stories of White House secret servicemen, concerning Kennedy's naked frolics in the pool with the secretaries Fiddle and Faddle. One of them recalled how Jackie's sudden return to Washington led to a traumatic evacuation of the pool by the President and entourage. What the film did not say was that other secret servicemen specifically deny any such events, maintaining that Kennedy only ever played matches away from home.
Wills concludes his article about Hersh thus: "In his mad zeal to destroy Camelot, to raze it down, dance on the rubble and sow salt in the ground where it stood, Hersh has with precision and method disassembled and obliterated his own career and reputation."
Which leaves the film where, exactly? As a one-sided polemic masquerading as fact. Which, I think, brings us neatly to Against Nature (C4, Sun). This three-part series was an extended disembodied personal view (but whose?) against the Greens. It was all very stylish. At its best it was very provocative. And at its worst it was an appalling stitch-up.
It was certainly always eccentric. Some critics loved it because they hate the Greens and their pieties. Others hated it because they were Greens and were rather fond of their own pieties. I was bemused by it. First I was shocked by its manipulation of its subjects. It was clear to me that the Greens who had participated had been edited into the programme so as deliberately to discredit them. Set against that, I was attracted to the opening up of debate in certain taboo areas, such as whether or not we would sacrifice human lives to save tigers.
What badly damaged the series in my eyes, though, was its excesses. The first was the total denial of any environmental problem, reminding me nastily of the Sunday Times campaign some years ago which suggested that Aids was all a myth got up by the health establishment. We haven't heard much of that one recently.
The second problem was the weird ideology that ran through some of its assertions. Like, it never spoke of "change" but always of "progress". Thus any technological innovation was progressive, and therefore good. But the biggest weirdness was the boneheaded assertion that the Greens were, in some way, spiritual heirs to the Nazis. A few shots of storm troopers planting trees illustrated the idea that Hitler had actually been a raving environmentalist. Something, incidentally, he quite forgot to mention to the technological progressives behind Germany's re-armament, to the manufacturers of Zyklon B, to Joseph Mengele, and to his business supporters in IG Farben and Krupps.
Pleased with the fuss and plaudits heaped by some of my colleagues, C4 scheduled a special confrontation last week. In the Against Nature Debate (C4, Tues), in which three Greens, straining at the leash, were sat opposite three "sceptics", marshalled by the pale, zealous, Jesuitical presence of Martin Durkin, the series producer. His purpose, Durkin told chairman Roger Bolton, had been "to take a look at the Green movement in a critical way." Hmmm. Well, I'm sure that's what he originally told the commissioning editor. But was the reality rather different? Or, to employ the language of Secret Lives, "was there a darker side to all this"?
Before we could find out, a terrible row erupted, in which Durkin's behaviour was remarkable for its incontinence. Continuously rebuked by Bolton, who at one point threatened to exclude him from the discussion altogether, Durkin said some very strange things. "So!" he cried triumphantly when fuel efficiency was mentioned. "So! Working-class people all over Britain have got to be more efficient? And you call that radical?" To which the obvious answers are yes and yes. Odd though.
But explanation was close at hand. It came when the Byronic but hobnail- booted land activist George Monbiot "outed" Durkin and those associated with the programme as members or sympathisers with the Revolutionary Communist Party - a bizarre sectlet who are to Marxism what Scientology is to mainstream Christianity. They were the bunch, you may recall, who defended the Serbs against accusations of mistreating the Bosnian Muslims, despite the evidence of mass graves. "McCarthyism!" screeched Durkin. "Disgraceful!"
He did not however, shout, "untrue!" And the scales suddenly dropped from my eyes. What we had had seen, and what accounted for all that weirdness, was the RCP's thinking on environmentalism: except, of course that their own agenda had been hidden. It was as though we had been treated unknowingly to the news as presented by the Seventh-Day Adventists.
Which all goes to show, doesn't it, how careful you have to be about what constitutes fact, on telly or over the garden wall. Mind you, that Hughie Green ...
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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