TV Review: How Herbie died for all of us

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"DEATH IS the price we pay for sex." As thoughts go, you don't get much more profound than that. Robert Winston had got to the last part of The Human Body (BBC1, Thursday), and was dealing with what he nearly correctly described as "the last taboo". I say "nearly" because I think that things are changing. One of the benefits of the baby-boomer generation reaching middle-age is that its preoccupations - which, by now, include mortality - have become the trendy topics. Death is all around us, and we want to know more.

This has been a beautiful series, despite the error of making the first programme an ad for all that was to follow. Those who listened too hard to the criticisms of part one have missed a great deal, including Winston's insight this week that, once we have "handed over the genetic baton", then nature has little further use for us, and we begin to die. Cells imploded on camera, hearts were attacked, and Winston walked the macabre corridor of death in a Sicilian crypt, past a row of those whose batons have now passed on several times over.

But, as has been the trademark of the series, the science was punctuated with the most human of narratives. First we got to know Herbie and Hannelore, a New Ageish German couple living in Ireland. And then we watched Herbie die, his life pushed out of him by a vast stomach cancer. Yet, despite the morphine and the protracted pain (Herbie lived 18 months when he was expected to succumb in weeks), it was a good death, as deaths go. A bout of stertorous breathing, a gobble, a stillness and there he was, dead, in the arms of the woman who loved him, in the home they made together.

Was it an intrusion? Is this such a private moment that it can never be screened? Surely not. Others might have botched it, but it is hard to praise these producers highly enough for their sensitivity and discretion. We saw something immensely valuable, which reminded us of our common bond. And Herbie was certainly no passive "subject" for our voyeurism. As we gathered around his Irish grave (yes, "we", for we were there too) the soundtrack carried Herbie's voice merging with that of Hannelore reading his last message. "May you all hold me in good memory," he had said. As an epitaph, that really is hard to improve on.

But if it were literally true that the wages of lust are death, then most of us who watched Stephen Poliakoff's film The Tribe (BBC2, Sunday) would be in trouble. Let me explain.

The Tribe is a commune, or cult, whose black-clad members live in a reconditioned block of flats in south London, eat delicious insects, design peculiar sculptures and bonk each other with a languid and democratic lack of discrimination. But their happy lifestyle is under threat from property developers who want the real estate, and local youths, who want to kill everybody.

I relate to this, because it is essentially a story of Sixties flower children assailed on all sides: by the conformist materialism of capitalist society, and also by the uncomprehending rednecks. Remember Easy Rider? No? OK, but I certainly recall sitting under a tree on Hampstead Heath in the summer of 1969, trying to work out whether the rustling from the bushes was being made by drug-raiding fuzz (someone in our group of 14- year-olds had about sixpence worth of cannabis on them), or by stalking skinheads, intent on burying their DMs in our tender, pacific flanks.

Back to the Tribe, and enter the young, pushy property developer - who gradually discovers the spiritual side of himself and becomes an ally (and then a member) of the cult. This is not as surprising as it sounds. First, everyone in the Tribe has just posed as a cover model for Vogue or Arena. Second, they give you supper, send you to bed, and then Anna Friel comes in, strips completely naked and rubs herself along your bare body. Friel is an immensely attractive actress fully clothed, but fully naked she is impossibly sexy. I'd have joined the Yanamano tribe for a night with Anna. Just watching her for a minute must have (pace Robert Winston) taken a year off my life.

It so happened that Boss Tribesperson was played by Joely Richardson. And, by stunning coincidence, her Mum was also prancing around on our screens this week dressed from top to toe in black. But Vanessa's were widow's weeds, as she played the avenging wife of a slain mobster in Lynda La Plante's Bella Mafia (Channel 5, Tuesday and Wednesday), a nonsensical mini-series which started in good Godfather style with loads of weddings and brothers, and the (to-be-slain) Don conducting his business in a study lined with books.

Forget sex. In Bella Mafia death seemed to be the inevitable price you paid for being a male Sicilian. All Vanessa's menfolk get rubbed out in one rather bad evening. A whey-faced consigliore comes to tell her the news. "Roberto?" she queries, tremulously. He assents. "Federico?" He nods. "Costantino? Alfredo? Enzo?" "All dead." At this point the author clearly ran out of Italian male names, otherwise we would have been there all night. But what am I talking about? This odd admixture of The Decameron, Oedipus Rex, Titus Andronicus and the Great Novels of Jeffrey Archer did indeed last all night. As, apparently, did the carnal adventures of those couples interviewed for Sex Life (Channel 5, Tuesday), a sort of Purley version of Hollywood Sex.

It began with amatory innovators, Paul and Linda. "Any household item or situation can become a sexual situation," opined the pony-tailed, grey- haired Paul, as his statuesque partner looked on. Really, I thought. What exactly might one accomplish with a Brillo pad, say? The spaghetti spoon? A Tintin key ring? And where might one accomplish it? Over the alpine rockery? Through the keyhole? Inside the tumble drier?

Otherwise this gloriously unsexual and wonderfully cheap programme mostly consisted of a reporter called Vanessa Collingridge (a pre-Raphaelite beauty with red ringlets, red lips, a nice, big, sensual nose and a disappointing line in clothes retention), talking to paunchy suburbanites about dildos and knobbly condoms.

Now, I have never met a dildo in earnest. Is it possible that people in Britain really use this stuff? That there are plumbers and personnel officers who go home each night to have sex while swinging from a mini- hammock? One would have thought not - a scepticism enhanced by the footage of giggling HausFrauen, passing parcels of silly underwear and vast dildos round a living-room. The fact surely is (I have long thought) that there is less sex going on than people claim, and what does go on is staid and predictable.

Or so I believed, until recently. And then, over dinner, I was told a true story by a commissioning editor for Channel 4. When she was a bitty thing and not a powerful panjandrum, she worked behind a bar in a hotel in Ardnabardna (I think that was the name of the place), on the east coast of Scotland, somewhere between Aberdeen and Hell. Anyway, the men who frequented this bar (gamekeepers, neep farmers, ghillies and factors, I imagine) used to stomp in, shake the snow off their boots and - while ordering the first malt - fling their house keys on a pile on the bar. Then, at the end of the evening, slightly pissed, they would pick up whichever keys came first to hand, and set off to find the house and the wife that fitted them. And that, m'lud, is a tale that trumps any encounter with an ageing hippie on a wardrobe, holding a shoe-tree.

With that tale, farewell, for this is to be my last television review for some time. Not, I hasten to add, because I have fallen out with management. It's too many dinners with commissioning editors like the lass from Ardnabardna that's the problem. I have, in the last few months, crossed the invisible line between being a TV critic - and being a TV presenter. I am no longer one of us (a fearless exposer of the shortcomings of an over-mighty industry), but have metamorphosed into one of them (an egotistical, temperamental luvvie needing constant reassurance from doting viewers).

It's been a great pleasure. It earned me an industry gong, the need to make one embarrassing apology, the receipt of one libel writ, and hundreds of letters - most of them correcting me on the subject of whether there had been a previous adaptation of Our Mutual Friend. I will miss it. Goodbye.

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