The times of their lives

THE CRITICS TELEVISION
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A HUNDRED years is a long time, even in television, but BBC1's big historical showpiece, the People's Century,has given itself plenty of room (26 episodes) to tell the story of our age. Even so, it found itself covering an almost silly amount of ground in the first episode, a whistle-stop tour of the fin de siecle, which included visits to France, the US, Russia, South Africa, India, China and Japan. Behind the romantic theme-tune, we glimpsed the launch of electricity, the birth of flight, the growth of mass media and literacy, the fall of Tsars and emperors, and the start of female suffrage.

It was, to say the least, enough to be going on with, and at times it felt like a big-budget Open University module. Huge catastrophes were passed over in a single sentence - a pogrom here, a revolution there - and the music swirled along so fast that the events tended to flatten themselves into the, er, rich tapestry of human life. But it was a decent precis of the century's major themes, and showed the BBC to be still, as it were, the people's sentry.

In tune with the modern historical habit that favours "real" life over the traditional kings-queens-and-battles version of the past, the film sought out the voices of "ordinary people". The effect was somewhat freakish, since the people in question were far from ordinary - some well into their hundreds. Many viewers will have been distracted by their sheer age: one man was 112. You could sense the nation working out on its fingers how old he must have been when, say, the First World War broke. They were probably too aged to fight in it; perhaps that is why they are still alive.

The film, thank God, ducked the obvious pathos - it would have been easy to have these bright-eyed centenarians saying ''aye, well of course houses only cost tuppence back then, and you have to remember, we didn't have cars in them days''. Still, we swayed uneasily between their private recollections and the grand historical dramas through which they lived. Somewhere in the gap, the story fell out of history, leaving only a pleasant hiss. It was a treat, though, to see all those slow-motion top hats and horses prancing, all those busy-jerky street scenes. There was even colour film of a French beach, shot in 1912. It came as a shock to realise that those far-off years didn't take place in black and white. Our view of the past is so coloured by photographic conventions that it gives us a jolt to realise that they had sunshine back then.

The Death of Yugoslavia (BBC2) took a more old-fashioned line, and concentrated, in a brilliant feat of terrier-like production, on the people who count, the ones who force the pace. The effect was marvellous. The presidents of the republics chatted about the recent past like sportsmen giving a post-match interview, and this made the story both compelling and clear. A war which in the map-room looked like a clash between cultures and national identities came to seem more like a falling out among friends. Everything seemed personal: the men who ended up fighting had for years sat around the same table. And the enormous belly of the Italian foreign minister seemed an eloquent symbol for the West's stodgy response.

It was a remarkable coup by the publicity people to organise the present Nato bombardment. The fearsome evidence on the nightly news added a telling flourish to the film's icy unravelling of the background. Even the swizzes and reconstructions had conviction. We watched a plane landing, and it was tempting to believe it truly was the plane in which Milosevic and his cohorts plotted the invasion of Croatia. Similarly, the lorries sliding through mist did seem like the ones used to smuggle arms from Hungary.

It is so good that it makes other ways of reporting the conflict seem trite. The film featured an early Newsnight (BBC2) glimpse of the action in Slovenia, and very trim and meaningless it looked, a crashing overstatement loaded with off-the-peg solemnity. So it was good to see the show catching up with a special report. Martin Bell picked out the turning points on the battlefield, John Simpson retraced the convoluted diplomacy that has helped sustain the fighting, and Peter Snow waved his arms over the maps like, well, like an EC peace-planner. Both Bell and Simpson floated a nice conspiracy theory linking Britain's acquiescence in Germany's reckless recognition of Croatia with Germany's surprising support for the British opt-outs at Maastricht, which by coincidence happened at the same time. The best moment of the week for conspiracy theorists, though, came in a bizarre foul-up during The Big Story (ITV). The programme - a cogent and worrying investigation into the links between Bill Clinton and a drugs scandal in Arkansas - ended curiously. "So is Bill Clinton an innocent by..." - then someone hit the rewind button and the film zizzed backwards. What was going on? Had the CIA reached out its long arm and pulled the plug? Personally, I reckon it has something to do with the Kennedy assassination.

It was a busy week for interviewers. Melvyn Bragg smiled at Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford smiled at Sheena Macdonald. And David Frost, handed a scoop, "interrogated" Nick Leeson (BBC1). Frost had obviously been hand- picked by the Leeson camp, which now includes an influential literary agent, and you could see why. He displayed no particular grasp of the subject beyond a goggle-eyed tabloid alarm that a "28-year-old plasterer's son from Watford" could have wrought such havoc. His questions went: "But the, in terms of the eights then, you, did you actually open the account?" It wasn't hard for Leeson to act the innocent, to come across as a man who had merely - as they said at the time - lost his Barings.

The only fashionable thing to say about They Think It's All Over (BBC1), the new sports quiz starring Gary Lineker and David Gower, is that it's just another sad, cor-fancy-a-bit-of-yours exercise in bog-standard humour for the so-called New Lads. Trouble was, it was funny. Not for everyone, of course - you had to be up on your Graham Taylor trivia to catch most of the jokes. But the format worked well: the sportsmen lying deep, passing wide to the comedians on their flanks. Rory McGrath in particular played one of the games of his life. Nick Hancock, the extremely chipper referee, shouted his lines, as if to make himself heard above the gales of laughter, and this gave an edgy feeling to this first game of the season. And lets hope the lads run out of Sharron Davies jokes before too long. But otherwise it looked like pretty good fun. Any programme which revives Boycott's spooky birdspotting ramble about the wildlife on an Indian golf course - "those red ones with the bushy tails" - has to be good value for what we in television call an extended cup run.

Oh, and if you missed Go Now (BBC2), bad luck. What could have been a mawkish Love Story in reverse (she's adorable, he gets multiple sclerosis) was redeemed by a nice mixture of loutishness and delicacy. Bosnia cropped up, embarrassingly, as a place where there was "lots of shagging". But what do you expect? It's the people's century, after all.

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