THE CRITICS : Thinking man's psychic investigator


David Aaronovitch
Saturday 27 July 1996 23:02

The scene is a deserted mansion at dusk. The house itself is bathed in a weird light, enhancing the shadows of the trees all around. And down the stairs floats the ethereal form of a woman; a woman with large eyes, pale skin and red lips. No, it can't be, surely? It is. It's Carol Vorderman. The same Carol Vorderman who we were told had fallen out acrimoniously with the Beeb and vowed never to darken its doorstep again? Spooky!

Actually, of course, Carol's appearance is another device (like the canted camera and the dry ice) to help create an atmosphere of uncertainty and disorientation for the viewers. The message was that if Carol can work for the BBC after that huge, flouncy row, then anything is possible. Which, essentially, is the premise for Out of This World (BBC1, Tuesday), the latest in a growing number of programmes aimed somewhere between New Age pseudo-spiritualism ("The crystals certainly seem to exercise some force, Keith") and the National Enquirer ("My 12 nights of passion with the man from Mars").

Carol on the stairs, Carol in a big room, Carol in the hall (though, disappointingly, not Carol in the kitchen or Carol in the loo; too mundane, I suppose) held together the disparate elements of the programme, the centrepiece of which was the tale of Liz and Bill Rich. Liz and Bill were an ordinary couple who lived in a house in Wales where also dwelt evil. The problems of depicting evil were got over by someone periodically frightening a cat and then filming it (to be followed by Rolf Harris and Animal Hospital on tending a traumatised tabby perhaps?), or running round the bushes with the camera at knee level.

Liz and Bill had tried everything. The Baptist exorcist had blamed it on Druids and dabbling in alternative medicine, and had got them to burn their copy of the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia. The psychic had decided that there was a murder victim present and - lo and behold! - a farmer had once been murdered not a hundred miles away from that very spot.

Finally, a resident scientist, one Dr Richard Wiseman, appeared, explaining that this was all very inexplicable, but that maybe it was Bill and Liz's imaginations at work. I agree. And since I do not have to work to the BBC Producer's Guidelines, perhaps I can go a little further. My conclusion is Bill and Liz were always several slabs short of a standing-circle and the whole story was a load of old bollocks.

The same could hardly be said for Secret History: The Whitechapel Murders (C4, Thursday), could it? I mean, we had David Jessel - the zealous releaser of wrongly convicted prisoners and very serious journalist - claiming staggering new evidence about the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Most contemporary Britons having already been accused and cleared of the murders by previous documentaries, Mr Jessel and Secret History cast their nets further afield and discovered a bisexual Irish-American doctor, with an alleged penchant for collecting uteruses.

The script was littered with the ponderous language of journalistic certainty, "Secret History can now reveal...", etc. From somewhere (before the technology was even invented), film of prosperous London in the late 1880s miraculously surfaced to permit the line "The capital was not all that it seemed. London was a tale of two cities". The programme oozed dubious authority.

The upshot of all this oozing was the fingering of a new Jack, one Dr Tumulty, as revealed in the recently discovered correspondence of a senior Scotland Yard rozzer - and as suggested by most American newspapers of the day. But Mr Jessel had a problem. Since it was now so evident that everybody had known all along that it was Dr Tumulty who had been collecting uteruses the hard way, why hadn't they arrested him? And why had the yellow press simply forgotten about him? Because, said Jessel, they were all very embarrassed by their failure to apprehend him earlier, so "what better way ... than to allow it to slip away and forget it ever happened?" I beg your pardon, their strategy was to forget Jack the Ripper ever happened? Bollocks, David.

Fortunately there were no bollocks on view in Page Three - A Celebration (ITV, Sunday). And not so many boobs either, despite being presented by that top-heavy former model Samantha Fox. Contrary to my fears, this was a nicely subversive programme, intelligently made for a mass audience by a woman producer (Genevieve Robinson). The celebrating was done by an all-male cast including Georgie Best, Peter Stringfellow, Gary Bushell and a ridiculous Frenchman called Antoine de Caunes ("Some pipple pretend it's ze eyes. But be honest, it's ze boobs"). But raising sceptical eyebrows were the fabulous Germaine ("If guys were confronted by glistening dicks and tight arses, they'd understand immediately") Greer, Emma Nicholson MP and - best of all - anthropologist Nigel Barley. Barley, posed next to a piece of steatopygous African art, pointed out that Caunesian tit- worship properly constituted a fetish.

But what of the Page Three girls - the fetish dolls - themselves? Bright but not articulate must be the verdict. One of the first, Cheryl Gilhams - who now realised that her breasts were really for suckling babies - talked about how she'd had to rouge her "aolas" for the photos.

Curiously, the one set of aolas not on view were Samantha Fox's. Though she ended the programme with the line that she would tell her grandchildren that "I was the Page Free gel and prahd of it", her pride somehow did not extend to showing old photos of her chest on screen. Everyone else's were on display, but not proud Samantha's. And we know why, don't we? Because you don't take people seriously if they earn their living by shoving their rouged aolas into camera lenses.

And it isn't much easier to treat them with gravity if they roll around a sandpit in bikinis and dark glasses. But that is what the organisers of the Atlanta Olympiad would have us do with the competitors for the beach volleyball medals. Not that Des Lynam (Olympic Grandstand, BBC1, Tuesday) was impressed. His laconic introduction to the sport distanced him splendidly from the follies that followed. "Going down the pub is not yet an Olympic sport," he said, "but beach volleyball is."

There followed half an hour of bliss watching four athletic young ladies in the skimpiest of costumes throw themselves around after a ball. Featuring the chic team from Italy (whose time-outs consisted of sitting on deckchairs under a sun umbrella, drinking ice-cold drinks and not speaking) and the girls from Brazil (whose aolas, one guessed, would not require rouge), this was like a sexy version of cable channel L!ve TV's famous topless darts. The Italians, who fondled each other's largely exposed buttocks whenever they won a point, took things very seriously and thus, deservedly, lost. But taken together with the excellent Sharron Davies, who introduced the swimming later on (and is yet another BBC star to add to the Hansen and Barker stable), it all made for a terrific evening.

It was guys who were on view in the latest instalment of the rock history Dancing in the Street (BBC2, Saturday). Last week we had reached Jim Morrison, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and Bowie, in a programme that was as nearly a perfect piece of television as I have seen this year. If you examine the components you'll see what I mean. Most important, the first-hand testimony (or "synch") has to be good. And it was. Thus Bowie reflected on his (and a generation's) sense of isolation: "Nothing culturally belongs to you in suburbia. I wanted to embrace anything but the place I came from." The interviews were carefully shot in large empty rooms to give subliminal emphasis to this notion of isolation.

Then the archive pictures were well chosen and appropriate, the script was witty and sparing ("Who would take over Morrison's mantle and wear the leather trousers?") and the programme was beautifully edited. Let two moments suffice as examples of cutting-room art. The first occurred as we were told that even the Stones had been obliged to embrace glitter. There was Mick glamming it up in a purple sequinned cat-suit, and a shot of Charlie Watts, stolid behind his drums, looking at his lead singer with a tiny smile of resignation. The second concerned Bowie in LA, where he was said to be taking a lot of cocaine. The shot was of an unhappy Bowie in a huge limo c1975, interrupting an explanation about his music with a small and significant sniff. Real history, real lives, properly told. That's what makes real telly.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments