Television: Want a safe job? Apply for pontiff

the week on television
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The Independent Online
Two new findings came to light this week. One, Manchester United must spend about pounds 20m on a competent centre forward to advance any further than the UEFA Champions League Semi-Final - Live (ITV, Wed). Two, the average viewer watches three-and-a-half hours of television a day. That's the equivalent of two semi-finals an evening, incorporating half-times. Or seven editions of The Rock and Goal Years (ITV, Wed), a clips' show cynically scheduled to inherit the Champions League audience. Or 42 screenings per diem of the Party Election Broadcast by the Liberal Democrats (all channels, Wed), the one with two fat old coves playing football. Never let it be said that the third party, like the third channel, doesn't know what the people want: the bitter pill of propaganda was coated in the sugar of a footballing metaphor.

While the election coverage limps towards its endgame, just about every documentary on television has been thematically scheduled to ask the topical question: what does it take to hold down a top job? In the Sack Race (BBC2, Sat) Alan Hansen wondered what kind of pressure junkie would fancy managing a football club. Shoot Out In Swansea: The Making of Twin Town (BBC2, Sat) was a frank analysis of the febrile monomania required of the debutant film director. And Everyman (BBC1, Sun) went to Rome to inspect the list of men who would be pontiff.

It turns out there's surprisingly little daylight between the three vocations: they all call for blind faith in your own vision, and a discipular following to implement it. The Pope ultimately differs from football managers and film directors only because he doesn't have to worry about being fired or going over budget. Everyman yielded a wonderful adjective to describe those who are considered eligible for the papacy. "Papabile" literally translates as "popeable", and it should be put on a fast track into the English language forthwith. No word does a better job of discreetly measuring suitability for public leadership. As in is Tony Blair popeable?

Every time the parliamentary Conservative party selects a new leader - and that'll be the next ballot paper it puts an "X" on after Thursday - it is routinely described as the most saturnine electorate in the world. But for sheer opacity of intention and convolution of motive, the Tory party hasn't a patch on the conclave of cardinals which chooses the Pope. So secret is their electoral procedure, apparently, that cardinals are frisked for mobile phones before they enter the voting chamber. No matter that mobile phones hadn't been invented when they all put their cross next to John Paul II: this electorate is so sophisticated its members would have got round that one in a jiffy.

So unreadable are the runes in a papal election that the few certainties are best explained, Lib Dem style, via a footballing metaphor. Thus it is that an African cardinal has as much chance of becoming Pope as an African team does of winning the World Cup: slender, but imaginable. And, as with the US football team, no American cardinal has a prayer.

Like the ban on mobile phones in the conclave, so serious is the British addiction to the small screen that some voters this Thursday are apparently reluctant to enter the polling station without their televisions. There was a documentary this week called Interview with a Zombie (C4, Sun) about a Haitian who has been legally declared undead. For some viewers it must have been like catching sight of themselves in the mirror.

Others saw Interview with a Zombie listed and promptly phoned Channel 4 to complain that this was a Prime Ministerial broadcast too far. But in a campaign soiled by daily exchanges of sterile name-calling and distorted by the refusal of either main party to let its female front benchers anywhere near a television studio, you do have to applaud the Conservative leader for one outstanding act of restraint. He may have told you more about what Labour did in power before 1979 than what he would do in power after 1997, but he has nobly resisted the temptation to campaign on the Liberals' dismal record when last in government. It was only two wars ago, after all (the First and Second World Wars), just like Labour's last regime (the Falklands and Gulf). Is John Major popeable? Is he, my (left) foot.

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