The Critics: Television: We'll be the fly, you be the judge

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
LET US NAME the dominant genres. First, of course, there is the young thrusting phenomenon of docusoap - two new ones start on BBC1 next Tuesday alone. Then there's makeover TV, whose most successful incarnation, Changing Rooms, follows the glitter trail from BBC2 to BBC1 soon. Falling fast is voodoovision, now that audiences for The X-Files have slumped. Talk shows fill the daytime schedules still, with their polyester mooses screaming at one another about infidelity and calories.

But still up there, competing and always metamorphosing, is the single- doc "ain't people weird?" strand, which we might generically entitle Modern Cutting Inside Edge Story Times. The makers of these films show you a cunningly selected and wittily edited reality, and then leave you to make what you will of it. At their best then, they are provoking and moving. But they can equally be mendacious and glib, dipping their lenses into a cabinet of curios and then presenting the results as some kind of profound experience. If the Emperor has no clothes, then that is the fault of the unimaginative viewer, not the auteur.

I think (though I am not sure) that Modern Times: Family Values (BBC2, Wed) fell into the former, worthy category. It was essentially a sketch of two upper-middle-class families and their contrasting (but equally disastrous) child-rearing strategies. I am not going to bother speculating about why the parents in these cases agreed to be filmed (we all do strange things sometimes), but if I were them I would be horrified by the results. If you were to strip out the arguments chez Aaronovitch and edit them together with the sulks, glares, the "find your own socks" exchanges and the hollow- eyed fatigue of two jobs combined with three kids, it would not make pleasant viewing. For me, that is. For you it might be a hoot.

Most obviously funny were the two Cornish Tories, sharing a dream house in dream grounds with nightmare children. Once, the parents had been insulated against childish things. Mum (a member of the Conservative Family Campaign) recalled that "when we had a housekeeper, a cook and a nanny the children did everything separately". But now their 11-year-old son appeared to be set on as clear a course of moneyed waywardness as I have ever seen, and all their ventures were dominated by comic yelling and exhausting recrimination.

But the more interesting case was that of Amalia and John, who would not shout at their children. No, they wanted only the best, calm sort of a relationship. To which end they enrolled themselves and the children in courses run by the New Learning Centre in north London.

For the parents, this entailed learning obvious but useful lessons like "praise your children when they behave well". For the kids, however, it meant descending into the inner circles of hell. On the wall behind them was a very long list of rules. These included such important instructions as "Accept correction gratefully", "No fiddling", and "Wear clothes without pictures or words".

The woman responsible for this totalitarianism - a Gradgrind of the modern era - was a North American woman called Noel Janis-Norton who, with a patronising smile, advised the children on "learning how to control your inappropriate impulses". Actually, what should really have worried her was their entirely appropriate impulses - to bash her head in with a bound copy of her repressive rules.

So I ended up thanking Modern Times for letting me in on how some of our kids are being treated in the name of happy families. Would I be quite so grateful to Channel 4 for Cutting Edge: Rogue Males on Tuesday?

Not really. This doc followed a number of Salford men through their various efforts to make money on the margins. One pair, Steve and Derek, were staggeringly incompetent builders, and were responsible for two hilarious sequences. Like when they "forgot" to put a door in a garage wall they were building. "Where's the door?" asked the aggrieved client. "You never told me nowt about a door," they lied. Then later, when they have been dismissed without payment they tell the director their rationale. Which is: "We're being paid by the metre. We're not going to piss about with a doorway, are we?"

With their innocence, their fabulous use of language and strange feyness, Steve and Derek could have had a show to themselves. But instead, they featured in a film that seemed to have been cobbled together from other popdocs: Builders from Hell, Life on the Dole and - of course - the inevitable Male Stripper. (These days there are only two types of working-class people: the women are all prostitutes and the blokes are all male strippers. If I have to watch another pack of drunken harpies yelling "off, off, off" at some inelegant, perspiring lump of beefcake, I'm gonna chuck.)

Also, some of these people looked familiar. The carpet men who kept on being ripped off by their clients had featured in another Cutting Edge, The Complainers, screened last September and made by the same director, Dominic Savage. Then they were the object of complaint by a man called Alan. "They were so good in The Complainers that Dominic wanted to explore their attitudes a bit further," explained the Channel 4 press office. And Alan too put in another appearance. The denouement was his refusal to pay for his carpet, resulting in a fight between the star of September's film and the star of February's film.

So what are we to make of this? Is the truth that - as with televisual nasty neighbours - the actual number of these people is pretty small, but exaggerated by coverage? Docs aren't obliged to tell us this. Or, indeed, to explain exactly who ripped off whom. It is enough for them that something engaging happens on screen. The rest is up to you.

It helps, therefore, when the portrait is more sustained, as it was in Inside Story: Decent Scum (BBC1, Tues), which featured the transient romance between two rather beautiful young street-sleepers, Tommy and Crystal - their skin dusted with peripatetic scabs, as though made up by the BBC wardrobe department. Their precarious relationship survived drugs and the street, but couldn't exist in the world of houses, families and hot meals.

And you didn't have to guess at all what the message was supposed to be in the timely Horizon: Saddam's Secrets (BBC2, Thurs). This showed the Unscom inspectors at work in Iraq as they uncovered huge, dusty complexes, previously stuffed full of boffins with Saddam moustaches, busy making anthrax from medicinal supplies exported by Germany.

The pattern of Saddam's response to inspection became clear: lies, evasions, threats, discoveries, admissions and then back to lies. But above all, you thought, what on earth was he planning to do with all this? The thing to remember about Saddam, oh you of short memories, is that he has actually used this stuff. On Kurdish villagers and in the war with Iran (that he started). Which should make one a little careful about comparisons with, say, Aldermaston or the US facilities.

So, although slightly overwritten, this film did help us to understand that Saddam is not the Danbert Nobacon of the Levant, a cheerful anarchic fellow with an amusing line in upsetting Western politicians. He is Idi Amin with anthrax.

While we are in this congratulatory mood, let us praise Thursday night's edition of Newsnight (BBC2), in which the producers and the presenter Gordon Brewer chose to tax Health Secretary Frank Dobson with having fetishised waiting lists, rather than - more predictably - with the crime of having let them rise. The result was a far more interesting, revealing, surprising and - above all - true discussion of the problems of the NHS. More of this, please.

And finally, what do the sad, tired old parents of young children do on a Saturday night? No, they do not enrol Noel Janis-Norton as a babysitter and then boogie the night away with Peter Mandelson at the Ministry of Sound. They throw the Barbie bits and Action Man accessories out of the crisp-strewn armchairs, slump back, sigh and sink into the soft embrace of Jonathan Creek (BBC1). If you think of TV programmes as foods, Creek is rhubarb crumble with custard: comforting and sweet, with a slightly tart edge.

Much has been made of the fact that it marks a return to the rational deductive virtues of Sherlock Holmes after the batty-aliens interlude of Scully and Mulder. Which is true, though this week's plot relied on the notion of a man digging a 20-by-20-by-four-foot-deep pit, filling it with a springy net and then jumping into it at night - thus feigning his own death - so as to get his own back on a faithless girlfriend. But then again, how credible was The Hound of the Baskervilles?

Comments