This is your dull and sanitised life

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The Independent Online
THE THING that surprises me most about the news that This Is Your Life has been poached back by the BBC from ITV is that the show is still running after 38 years. Apparently only two subjects, Danny Blanchflower and the author Richard Gordon, have refused to appear; the rest go like lambs to the slaughter, smiling through gritted teeth as disembodied voices from the past remind them of incidents they have very sensibly forgotten.

'Yes,' Eamonn Andrews or more recently Michael Aspel would declare with a cheesy grin, 'it's Mrs Dilys Roberts, your next-door-neighbour in Salford in 1966, specially flown in from North Uist where she now breeds Angora rabbits'. Enter elderly woman, obviously a complete stranger to the embarrassed celebrity, who is forced to embrace her and endure an inconsequential or mildly embarrassing anecdote from schooldays or adolescence.

Are the subjects deliberately chosen for their blameless lives? Has a show ever been abandoned at the research stage after a subject's relatives and acquaintances universally expressed their loathing for him or her? We don't get much reminiscence along the lines of: 'Hello John, remember me? I'll never forget that day in 1993 when you laughingly sacked me as your Chancellor of the Exchequer.'

Personally, I cannot imagine anything worse than standing on stage wondering which gruesome period in my past was about to be excavated; August 1982, for example, and that scene of high melodrama when I parted with my then lover at Rome airport. (Me: 'I never want to see you again.' Him: 'Hurry up or you won't get your duty- frees.') This would probably translate, in This Is Your Life-speak, into the ex-lover's voice demanding joshingly: 'So - did you ever get those duty- frees?' I, meanwhile, would be scrambling off the stage and trying to conceal myself among the audience. The BBC is welcome to Michael Aspel and his red book, but real life is neither as bland, nor as relentlessly jolly, as the show would have us believe.

ON THE subject of long-running programmes, when is someone going to tell Sue Lawley that he or she could manage very nicely on a desert island without the Bible and the collected works of Shakespeare? I have always suspected that the interviewees on Desert Island Discs pick eight records to surprise or impress listeners rather than to give a genuine flavour of their musical taste; you get far more brownie points for a rarely performed operatic work such as Puccini's Suor' Angelica than for admitting you'd be happy with eight Roy Orbison singles. But are we really to believe that an astonishing range of people, from Elizabeth Schwarzkopf to John Major to Stormin' Norman (who implausibly claimed two weeks ago to be a Bob Dylan fan), like nothing better of an evening than to curl up in an armchair with Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing?

It's even harder to picture them slipping between the sheets for a late-night peek at Leviticus or The Book of Ezra. This is no longer a devoutly Christian country, and I would be willing to bet that at least half the celebrities on Desert Island Discs haven't read a word of Shakespeare since their schooldays. There must also be plenty of atheists and agnostics (not to mention Hindus and Muslims) who would be rather despondent at the prospect of sitting on a deserted beach with only the Bible for company. This bit of the programme is a relic of a mythical past when everyone knew what a good book was, even if they hadn't read it; I'd willingly swap the Bible and Shakespeare for Charlotte Bronte's Villette and Byron's Don Juan. With these and Roy Orbison playing softly in the background, I think I could survive . . . oh, at least 24 hours on a desert island.

I'M SORRY to mention John Major again, but the Prime Minister is becoming one of my obsessions. He reminds me of one of those men who stand at the far end of the platforms on Reading station, endlessly writing down the numbers of trains in little notebooks, except that Mr Major's known obsessions are cricket and Trollope. Two weeks ago he was telling us of the joys of holidaying in Britain; now I learn he is off to Portugal for his summer break. I suppose we could hardly expect him, in present circumstances, to announce an immediate two-week vacation in Christchurch, but there are lots of other places he could have chosen.

Perhaps Mr Major is fed up, like me, with the ludicrously inconvenient opening hours of British museums and art galleries. A few years ago, returning to live in London after a long absence, I went bounding along to the British Museum one Sunday morning only to find it doesn't open until the afternoon. The same is true of the National Gallery and the Tate. Here in Oxford, the situation is even more dire. The Ashmolean, which has an eccentrically wonderful collection of European paintings including Piero di Cosimo's Forest Fire, opens for a mere two hours on Sunday afternoons. The Pitt-Rivers anthropological museum isn't open at all on Sundays, and only between 1pm and 4.30pm on weekdays.

Museums and galleries in New York, by contrast, positively welcome visitors. Last month I organised the last day of a brief trip to New York entirely around the opening hours of the Metropolitan Museum, my favourite collection after the Uffizi. It opens at 9.30 on Friday mornings and stays open until 8.45pm. I arrived just after 10, paid my dollars 6 entrance fee and stayed until it was time to go to Kennedy Airport.

By teatime even my insatiable appetite for Renaissance art and Roman frescoes had flagged and I spent a happy couple of hours in the lofty entrance hall, listening to the string quartet which strikes up at five on Friday evenings. I had a whole day of incomparable art, avoided the Friday evening rush-hour and arrived for my 11pm flight as cool and composed as if I'd just stepped out of my own living room. You can't do that in London.