TV Reviews: Scene by Scene with Steve Martin and Mad Cows and Englishmen
Monday 23 February 1998
A Bafta award makes a very sexy calling card. Mark Cousins's interview with Sean Connery nabbed one and made his new series look like a worthy rival to Jonathan Creek or Brideshead. His Scene by Scene with Steve Martin on BBC2 was a little disappointing and strangely flat, despite the gushing, calculatedly star-struck eagerness of Cousins's delivery. The conversation wasn't going anywhere much but the film clips, while often funny in themselves, seemed merely to interrupt the flow without necessarily illuminating the points made.
Before the big break into movies with The Jerk in 1979 Martin had spent 10 years as a stand-up comedian and mainstay of Saturday Night Live but he hides it very well. Martin took the view that audiences will eventually laugh at someone billed as a comedian whether they told jokes or not. The Entertainment Biz's film about life and death on the London comedy circuit did not bear this out. The film looked at stand-up from the humblest to the highest. En route to the Palladium from the Dorchester, the almost senatorial Jackie Mason ($5 million a year) showed us someone who had cracked the winning formula. One sold out show at the Palladium furnished a handsome box office take, two TV specials and a slice of the lucrative "Live Video" market. As Mason puts it "Nobody ever became a comedian because he's trying to bring happiness to people. He's trying to bring cash to the bank".
The voiceover was a bit on the drab side with its various truisms about the nature of comedy: "It's a long walk to the microphone and it's one the comedian must do alone." I mean, HONESTLY. And, if you generously suppose this lapse into cliche to be an aberration, they come back and hit you with the stage after the show being "Just an empty space echoing to the sound of applause". The comedians themselves made far better commentators on their craft. Greg Proops, Donna McPhail and Ed Byrne discussed good and bad audiences while Jackie Mason put it all in perspective with a false modesty that's fooling nobody: "Plumbers are more important than comedians: without a bathroom it's hard to enjoy life; without a comedian there'd still be happiness in the world."
There was a time when you could have substituted "butcher" for "plumber" in that sentence but that was before the cows went mad. The second part of the BBC2 series on the BSE crisis Mad Cows and Englishmen looked at the Thatcher government's attempts to ride out the storm as the cautious concern of food scientists exploded into media frenzy. Poor little Cordelia Gummer will forever be remembered for being force-fed a hamburger during a disgraceful stunt cooked up by the editor of The Sun. It was a photo- opportunity Thatcher's agriculture minister felt unable to refuse and the poor man sounded almost reasonable until his French counterpart remarked that, health risks aside, he would never use one of his children to help him carry out his public duties. The Tories always handled BSE as a political or commercial problem that could be soaped away with the right PR rather than a serious public health issue. It was a disturbing reminder of the public's automatic assumption that Conservative politicians were motivated exclusively by sleaze and self-interest. By 1990, they'd reached a parlous state in which ANY denial of ANYTHING was assumed to be a cover up and the scientific arguments were almost an irrelevance. Would you buy a used cow from this government?
It isn't a series to make you relish your carpaccio. There may be the odd shot of a few plates of juicy roast beef but they never quite counterbalance the endless footage of cows hanging upside down as their guts tumble out in a shiny bulbous mass. The average slaughterhouse doesn't exactly have a red chopping board for meat and a green one for veg. But when the inspectors finally went in, they found lengths of spinal cord being left in place and brains being sprayed everywhere as busy butchers removed the little grey cells by a power hose applied to the bolt-holes they'd made in the animal's head. You don't have to be mad to work here but it must surely help.
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