THE CRITICS : Rich, spoilt, and mad to talk


Nicholas Barber
Saturday 13 July 1996 23:02

To bean ideal documentary subject, a person needs two particular qualities. They have to be (1) crazy, and (2) willing to talk about it. Hence the best subjects of all are public-school children, rock stars and Americans.

The first of these featured in Gordonstoun (C4), the opener of the latest True Stories season. The film was about "an unorthodox public school", said the narrator, "famous for its cold showers, its early morning runs, and for making Prince Charles miserable". It took us through the autumn term, beginning at 6.45am, when a set of bagpipes croaked into life, summoning pupils to sleepwalk from their rooms and into the darkness, bedspreads wrapped around their shoulders. Gordonstoun's founder believed that a bit of healthy misery would give privileged youngsters moral fibre. He could have just advised them to attend an underfunded inner-city comprehensive, of course, but he wouldn't have been able to charge parents pounds 4,000 a term for that.

After the early morning trudge, we watched as the headmaster met with the newly appointed Colour Bearers - that's "prefects" to the proles among you. An American boy whose neck was wider than his head demanded increased disciplinary powers. "I think that's why we live in a time of so great a decline," he whinged, "because doing good is such a tedious task. It takes such a long time." The implication was that a smack in the ear takes a very short time indeed. These introductory vignettes, combined with the fact that two of the pupils we encountered were named William and Camilla, made me suspect that the film was part of Prince Charles's PR campaign. Anyone who was miserable here, I thought, is all right by me.

Penny Woolcock's documentary was fascinating and fun, and she was a concerned, sisterly interviewer. However, my enjoyment was darkened by a slight shadow of deceit. At the start, Gordonstoun seemed to be the British equivalent of the school in Dead Poets Society - and that was set 40 years ago. But in real life, the reforming Robin Williams character has had more luck than his movie counterpart. He is Mark Pyper, Gordonstoun's headmaster of five years, and as the documentary progressed we saw that the school had progressed too. Pyper's new regime was compassionate and firmly liberal, with not a cold shower in sight - not even for the pupils who could have done with one.

If it weren't for Pyper's reforms, the documentary would never have been permitted, and if it weren't for his leniency, maybe the pupils would have been less willing to be filmed smuggling beer into their bedrooms, and wiring a radio-controlled Walkman to the chapel speakers in order to trigger amplified toilet flushes during the sermon. Be that as it may, the unconventional public school we were promised no longer exists, and we didn't even witness much conflict between the old world and the new one, beyond the grumblings of a sailing instructor who was denied the sadistic pleasure of dunking adolescents in the icy North Sea. In short, when an institution allows in the cameras, it's a fair sign that it has nothing juicy to hide from them.

As for the young disciplinarian, a Bond villain in the making, his objections were overruled. Rather than expelling a bully, Pyper rusticated him - "suspended" proles - and the bully returned a changed citizen, soon to be playing table-tennis with his former victim. Inspirational stuff, but you couldn't call it essential viewing - except, perhaps, for Michael Howard.

The same went for David Furnish's Tantrums and Tiaras (ITV), a year in the life of Elton John. The title said it all. What happened behind the scenes? Well, Elton made scenes. "What the fack's goin' on?" he barked when some costumes didn't arrive at a video shoot. "I'll do ev'ryfin' my fackin' self in future!" Not a very convincing threat. When he attended the Oscars, he had a wardrobe man to offer him a choice of black socks.

Furnish, John's lover, was brave enough to paint a warts-and-all portrait of the Mr Toad of pop. Here was a spoilt toddler: selfish, insecure, the prima of all prima donnas. Ignoring his music, as this film mostly, and deliberately, did, there are two remarkable things about him. The first is that when he goes on holiday, he takes more suits than most of us will wear in our lives, not to mention two tiaras for those special occasions. Still, considering how much he used to spend on narcotics, he must have a lot of surplus cash. The second remarkable thing about him is that he is still alive.

He has settled with Furnish, and if the glimpses of their relationship in the film are anything to go by, it's John who wears the several hundred pairs of trousers in that household. And what a household it is. Once "a rampant party house ... full of juke boxes and pinball machines and stuffed bears", it is now "full of love and peace", not to mention Greek urns and Old Masters. Happy as we should be that John has found some contentment in his stately-home-cum-leisure-centre, as viewers we might have found the fun palace of yore a little more interesting. What's the point of seeing a rock'n'roller's lifestyle if his lifestyle isn't rock' n'roll? Five years ago, John confessed, he was drugged up to the comedy spectacles, so that this film could never have been made. Maybe not, but what a film you could have made in its stead.

And so to Americans. On Wednesday, the second part of the tremendous Gunpower USA (C4) charted the course of the National Rifle Association's campaign for the right to carry concealed firearms in public. Ever since the War of Independence, we were told, gun-toting has been part of America's "history, its constitution, and a cherished way of life".

Cunning in its reserve, the programme had no explicit bias, and the gun lobby couldn't complain about their portrayal. But there was no need for editorialising when the Michigan Militia was on camera. The sight of these moustachioed middle-agers wearing their camouflaged uniforms to church, painting their faces green, machete-ing their way through knee-high ferns, and weighing down their dogs with collars made of bullets ... it was a persuasive argument for the instigation of a simple rule: anyone who wants a gun should be disqualified automatically from owning one.

Mike Leigh's gritty new BBC drama showed how easily Aids can become an epidemic: an epidemic of fear and distrust. With a script like a taut spring, and ensemble acting that was fraught with integrity, it made the physical effects of the disease seem paltry beside the social ones, as an HIV-positive man saw the writing on the wall - literally. At the end of the programme he was confronted by his death warrant, "AIDS SCUM", spray-painted by the collective hand of a community's hatred.

Okay, so Mike Leigh had nothing to do with it. It was Tuesday's EastEnders (BBC1). But it was the best drama of the week, and if telling yourself it's by Mike Leigh will make you feel any better about watching the omnibus this afternoon, then go ahead.

Lucy Ellmann returns next week.

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