Derek, More4<br />Hotel Babylon, BBC1 <br />Dawn Goes Lesbian, BBC3<br />The Last Enemy, BBC1<br />Magnetic North, BBC4

A celebration of the film director Derek Jarman and his work makes much of TV seem callow. But conspiracists are in for a treat with the start of a creepy 10-week serial

By Hermione Eyre
Sunday 24 February 2008 01:00

A wonderful profile of Derek Jarman, Derek (More4) made by Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton, was packed with glittering, gorgeous celluloid snatches of the man and his work. It took the form of a graveside conversation – one-sided, as they tend to be – in which Tilda filled Derek in on all the goss he'd missed since he hung up his paper crown in 1994.

"You won't believe it," she told him. "Flumps come in blue now and Neighbours has moved over to Five." No, you're right, she didn't. She told him how she felt the spirit of independent film had evaporated: "The formula merchants are out in force. They are in the market for guaranteed product... Maybe now it is as bad as you and I used to say it could possibly get. Maybe it's worse." Bit of a downer to hear, really, even if you're dead.

Next Tilda strode portentously into the wind, doing that searching squint meant to denote Looking Into A Glass, Darkly but all too easily confused with Lost My Glasses and Feeling Grumpy. Smiling occasionally would, presumably, represent a lapse in integrity.

But Swinton is not as pretentious as she looks. That sounds dangerously close to "Wagner is not as bad as he sounds", but bear with me. I really mean it. Everything she said had bite, even when it sounded mushy. "Derek, my kindred artist child of warriors!" she trilled. It meant: we both had military parents, except some thought and risk and poetry had been put into its expression. We are so used to soporific, safe TV and blancmange commentary that a programme like this takes a bit of getting used to; your eyes have to adjust to the bright.

Extensive footage was used from Colin McCabe's hitherto unseen 1990 interview with Jarman, so we got to see him giving a frank account of his life in the bevelled vowels of his child-of-the-Raj voice, his eyes winking with a naughty, gleaming innocence. Spliced in between was Tilda's lament about the growing commercialisation of film. And indeed, when Jarman's Blue came on directly after, it was introduced with one of those awful Yellow Pages ads in which a group of tradespeople huddle together, chanting, in this case: "We are the interior designers of Bournemouth, and we hope you enjoy this film." Mind-bogglingly irritating as it was, I'm not sure if the Yellow Pages paying for Blue to be shown on television underlined Swinton's point, or undermined it. Blue just needs to get on television, and you can't afford to be too squeamish about how it makes it there.

Swinton said she was always tickled by "the whiff of the school play" about Jarman's work: the "dodgy wig" here or the "awkward moment of zing" there. But recently in art, she observed, things have got awfully tidy. There is a lot of "finish". Films today, she said, are mirrorball-smooth and marketable.

That phrase exactly nails Hotel Babylon (BBC1), a gleaming, empty, crowd-pleasing drama that shares vital DNA with a promotional video for Trusthouse Forte. The dialogue is fluent cliché and, just when you think it's becoming enjoyably camp, a naffly sententious voiceover kicks in: "Sometimes, just sometimes, we are asked to stand up and be counted ..." Dexter Fletcher is great as the ageing bellhop, but really, what a comedown from Caravaggio.

Dawn Goes Lesbian (BBC3) was unbelievable. Unbelievable! Presenter Dawn Porter went to live with some lesbians for a month, to see if she could be tempted. She justified this jaunt with spurious mumblings about wanting to test if female sexuality was "fluid", but this was just a theoretical figleaf (as we remember from the previous week's Dawn Goes Naked, she's fond of those). So let's stop mincing our metaphors here. This was soft porn, masquerading as a documentary. It wasn't interested in showing anything except the charms of its presenter. What Swinton, with her true heart, failed to notice was the burgeoning new cult of self-promotion, and its favourite modus operandi, titillation.

Have you got a spare 10 or so hours? Would you like to fill them with a creepy conspiracy drama about the surveillance state? If so, you're welcome to The Last Enemy. It's a superior thriller, with fine performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Anamaria Marinca, but I'm not sure I have the stamina. One episode in, and we're already three unexplained disappearances down, and one back-from-the-dead twist up. The political detail isn't very convincing (was that bunfight really meant to be a cabinet meeting?) and the psychology is as twisty-turny as a funfair ride (She hates him! No, she fancies him! Oops, back to hatred!).

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I've heard it all comes together most gratifyingly in future episodes, but I don't rate The Last Enemy's chances of mass popularity. We're all too busy trying to figure the here-and-now of public surveillance to want to watch a dystopian drama about it. Dark imaginings, no thank you; Newsnight, yes please.

Life is never too short to watch Jonathan Meades. The man with the flat, rectilinear face and three-dimensional vocabulary was back this week with Magnetic North (BBC4), a salty defence of our cultural closeness to the Baltic states. Every sentence he delivers bursts like a salmon egg in your brain. Delicious.

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