Transports of delight, and of distress : THE CRITICS : Television

BBC2 boldly rejigged Thursday evening to accommodate Sir Georg Solti and Richard Eyre's heart-stopping new production of La Traviata. Live from Covent Garden, the acts were slotted between scheduled programmes. During one of the breaks, a breathle ss young man called Quen-tin appeared on the screen and gave an accurate appreciation of Angela Gheorghiu's Violetta: "Drop-dead gorgeous and exquisite, it belongs in the hall of all-time greats." Nice to see a lad from Top Gear responding to one perform ance that can't be measured from 0 to 60. But Quentin, it emerged, was singing the praises of another peerless foreign beauty that can transport your senses to heaven while your body stays squidged in a plush red seat. And at £30,000 the 1970s Ferrari Di no won't set you back much more than a Garden stall.

It was intriguing to wonder what the non-telly-watchers ("We do have one, actually, but only for the wildlife programmes") who had tuned in for a dose of high culture made of the interval entertainments. With its history of unemployment "schemes" (ruses to you and me), the final Forbidden Britain offered a sober comparison with the Opera House where the rush for the crush bar sounded like a Mayfair-sized piece of taffeta tearing in half.

Nor will Traviata fans have run into Top Gear before, although they should certainly recognise this expertly produced world of expensive thrills and blinkered enthusiasts. "If you had £30,000 to spare," mused Quentin, "would you spend it on an E-type Jaguar or a Ferrari Dino? That must be the most difficult question you'll ever have to answer." Oh, I don't know. How about, "your daughter, Claire, turns out to have achondro-plastic dwarfism; would you have her legs broken in an excruciating operation to add eight inches to her height, or condemn her to a life of being looked down on?" For anguish that would have silenced Verdi, you had only to turn over to Children's Hospital (BBC1).

With more than eight million viewers, the "real-life drama" from Shef-field is one of the BBC's great successes. Any Corporation staff nursing qualms about the moral health of a programme that turns the suffering of those too young to object into gripping short stories must smother them now that ratings count for more than responsibility. On Thursday, we cut between two children under the knife: there was "a new liver for baby Emma", and there was Claire, the stunted 11-year-old, whose fearf ul whoops as she was wheeled to her operation had at least one viewer moaning along. But that was just the start. When the surgeon's drill got busy boring holes in Claire's legs it sounded like a starved seagull. "And the last stage is to break the tibia with a hammer." Ouch. Elsewhere, as the floppy but still button-eyed Emma was taken from her distraught mother, the narrator chimed in with a few words delivered so solicitously you would have thought they were a consolation, not a way of building suspe nse: "Emmahas only a 50 per cent chance of surviving the operation." After 12 hours of surgery, the baby was sickly green and withered as a gherkin. Her parents were plainly grateful she was still warm to the touch: cocooned by concern, they didn't real ise they had allowed their child to be the star of one of the most distressing scenes on TV this year.

Earlier in the week, another small girl had her potentially fatal condition held up for our inspection in The Visit: A Life for Polly (ITV). Desmond Wilcox's film about a family coping with leukaemia was a lot more sensitive than Children's Hospital. It averted its eyes in those moments when common decency would make anyone turn away except an ambitious producer. But what did it tell us? That a mother loves her young to distraction? That being faced with losing a child makes you appreciate the little things in life? All that pitiless prurience for fortune-cookie philosophy. Suffer little children, once an invocation to compassion from Christ now appears to be a broadcasting directive. So why this trend for mawkish and morbid programmes? Perhaps we needto experience these things vicariously in the first age when death is seen as a rude intruder breaking up a party meant to last forever.

Clive James once said that anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world. That is true where TV merely holds up a mirror to life, but when it starts using a magnifying glass to whet the appetite for themacabre we have good reason to be fearful. The abattoir as legitimate form of public entertainment will draw closer with Intensive Care, a forthcoming BBC series in which citizens scraped off the motorway with a fish slice will be served up for our supper-time delectation. After real-life drama, introducing real-death drama! The Full Wax (BBC1) sounds like depilatory treatment, which makes its title more revealing than most. Our hostess is certainly hair-raising and best tolerated in short, eye-watering snatches. Ruby's rat-a-tat chat style means she sometimes misses by a mile, but on present, pugnacious form, she hits the bullseye every time. The best joke is that most of Ruby's guests fail to grasp that the funny little Munchkin rifling through their handbag or coming over all goofy about their attractions is a lot smarter than they are. Witness the recent mugging of Madonna, in which sheepish Ruby left the goddess looking decidedly bovine. The celebrity interview is a discredited form, but Ruby pulls it off by placing neon inverted commas around every exhausted convention. Last week, when Carrie Fisher failed to show, she shared some operatic pique with the crew ("all I can say is, she'd better be funny, or she's out") and then decided to improvise. Spotting two giant chocolate-chip cookies, she put them to her ears and was instantly transformed into Fisher's Princess Leia. Like all Ruby's finest work, it took the biscuit.

Seaforth (BBC1) has been dark and daft but compelling for all that. It ended with Bob (Linus Roache) narrowly avoiding the gallows. I bet the BBC wished it had let him go hang, with Roache announcing that he doesn't want to do another series. Better to leave the hero dangling than the viewer. Things look a lot brighter for Jimmy McGovern's Cracker (ITV), which wound up with a sensational episode full of elegant surprises. Coppers and civilians were uniformly excellent, but special praise to Geraldine So merville's Penhaligon, copper and rape victim, who looked as spooked as a mermaid surfacing from some terrible wreck. McGovern has such confidence now that he can even pull off the apparently reckless dumping of a key character like Bilborough. Nor is he afraid to give us a black rapist, a bit of casting that is more respectful of equal opportunities than a raft of ethnic-minority legislation.

Myra Hindley: Life Sentence (C4) could have done with McGovern's curiosity about motive. But it was still riveting stuff. The rival cases - Hindley supporters' contention that after 30 years she had done her time, the bereaved families' view that an eternity of incarceration would not suffice - were put across with great force. The film rightly encouraged us to question why an evil woman should rank higher in the national bestiary than a bad man. And we were meant to recoil, I suspect, at th e brother of one victim who snarled: "A woman should 'ave different instincts from a bloke. Mootherly loove." But to see the mothers themselves still dead-eyed from that first shock was to share the huge, visceral sense of wrong. What is Hindley's freedo m to the woman who still wanders the moors every Sunday digging for her lost son?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links