LAST NIGHT: David Dimbleby's India

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The Independent Online
The irritation induced by the title of David Dimbleby's India (BBC2), a two-partstate-of-the-nation travelogue, lasted for a surprisingly long time. Exactly when did the sub-continent fall into his hands? And why, in any case, should we care about his version, rather than that of someone who has some enduring relationship with the place? Usually such possessive titles would imply hard-earned knowledge (Mark Tully's India, say) or a specialist focus (Madhur Jaffrey's India, perhaps) or shameless celebrity slip-streaming (Posh Spice's India maybe). But none of those quite applied here - Dimbleby isn't even really known as an author-presenter, in the way that Clive James is. So it was difficult not to watch with a certain tetchy resistance to the claim for ownership.

This is actually the first splash from a tidal wave of films which will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the British withdrawal from India, but, as far as I could see, it makes no explicit reference to the fact, so that you are left slightly at sea as to what the programme is for - other than giving Dimbleby a way to expand his television franchise. He began with a pepper exchange in Cochin, a clamorous fragment of local colour that was promptly enlisted as a defining metaphor - "It's a bit like India itself," Dimbleby noted, "noisy, energetic, a bit ramshackle, but it seems to work". What followed, though, was more decorous - rather like one of those special supplements you sometimes find in broadsheet newspapers (the ones which tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Brunei's new telephone exchange). Bright young software programmers spoke optimistically about the future ("We are in pace with whatever's happening in the world today") and pristine schoolgirls ("tomorrow's leaders") answered impertinent questions about their boyfriends. There is a lighter side to India, though: "Bangalore works hard ... and plays hard," said Dimbleby, introducing the Westernised leisure shot that used to be obligatory in National Geographic portraits of emerging Third World nations.

But because the programme has an itinerary rather than an argument its defects are as local as its virtues. And when the locations throw up something genuinely interesting - as in the account of corrupt local politics in Patna - the doubts about the purpose of the exercise are forgotten fairly rapidly. This account of a cow-obsessed local power-broker who has been charged with fraud was captivating in itself, but it also proposed larger themes by insinuation - the susceptibility of an illiterate electorate, the way in which a colonial justice system comes up against post-colonial opportunism. The following sequence, too, escaped from the slightly glib generalisations of the opening - following a charity worker as she took a small girl back to the village where her mother had been poisoned and she had been abandoned (girl children are often murdered because their dowries can ruin a poor family). Even here, though, you wondered whether this was really Dimbleby's India ... or that of the programme researchers.

The title for the first film in Channel 4's late-night Queer Street strand may have prejudiced viewers in a different way. Invasion of the Big-Haired Lesbians will surely have lured a sizeable audience of male pub-evacuees looking for titillation. But Francise Dickensen's eye-opening film about the Dinah Shore Golf Classic (golf is apparently the "dyke sport of choice") will have disappointed viewers whose idea of lesbianism comes off the top shelf - even though this weekend fiesta sometimes seemed shaped by male sexual recreation, with its go-go dancers and bikini parties. Queerspotting, which followed, was a brief and disenchanted history of gay television by Paul Burston, a survey which seemed to establish that what gay viewers like to do above all is have a good bitch. There's no pleasing some people: various programmes were derided as being too straight or not straight enough, too earnestly political or too frivolous. Julian Clary brilliantly put it all into perspective by reminding you that it was all just telly anyway: "No one's going to remember this programme in about 15 minutes' time," he said, and Burston had the wit and confidence to leave the remark in.

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