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Truth and reconciliation

Truth and reconciliation

11 March 2006

12:00 AM

11 March 2006

12:00 AM

I caught the last Facing The Truth (BBC2, Saturday–Monday) in which Desmond Tutu moderated a meeting between the widow of a Catholic killed in the Ulster troubles and Michael Stone, the Milltown cemetery killer, who was behind her husband’s murder by loyalist gunmen. It was slightly less moving than expected — at least before the startling finish. At the risk of being forced to go to Belfast and apologise, like the previous editor of this magazine in Liverpool, Northern Ireland people do grief well — they have what would now be called the ‘grammar’ of grief; they know what’s expected, they have the tone of voice, they have lists: how the victim was innocent, how he was desperately ill, how his wife was pregnant, how he would never have harmed a fly…

I don’t mean they are insincere; merely that long practice and familiarity with 38 years of the situation has told them what to do and how to say it. I’m afraid I became slightly resistant to it when I worked there; both sides believe that their acts of terrorism are regrettable but understandable reactions to intolerable provocation, whereas what the other lot do cries to the heavens for vengeance. But Mr Stone seemed contrite and taken aback by the widow’s outpouring of rage and misery. She told him she forgave him, then said something in an accent so thick that even after four tries I couldn’t understand it, but the tone of which implied something rather different from forgiveness. The Archbishop, with a television producer’s instinct, teased out the ‘money shot’ — a handshake, which he obtained by hinting strongly that that was what God wanted to see. So she suddenly shook Stone’s hand, shouted, ‘Oh my God, my God!’, and ran screaming from the room. It was very sudden and very shocking. Will gestures like that and the almost unnerving placidity of the Archbishop, help to end the troubles? Don’t be daft.

Tutu reminded me slightly of those insects which are popped into the fridge by wildlife film-makers in order to slow them down. I bumped into David Attenborough at the weekend, and he confirmed that, yes, they did do that kind of thing. The real problem now, he said, was not the technology, which meant you could film anything, anywhere, but the fact that, since computers can generate a perfectly convincing T-Rex walking, roaring and eating dead flesh, why should anyone believe anything else they see on the screen? The filming diaries at the end of Planet Earth (BBC1, Sunday) are a good way round that; by showing you how it’s done, they convince you that it has been done. The images are so powerful, so resonant, so moving that we are almost overloaded: the baby polar bears, the shark tossing a seal into the air, the unbearably pathetic lost baby elephant of the Kalahari and, my favourite, the baboons wading unhappily through water like a 1950s scene on Blackpool beach. They should all have had knotted hankies on their heads.


Television feeds upon itself, and a good example is Comedy Connections (BBC2, Monday), which explores the roots of programmes such as, this week, The Fast Show. The performers didn’t seem to have got on awfully well, and though their rudeness about each other was accompanied by much ironical smiling and winking, you sensed they were using the jokes to air genuine resentments. At the end, a weary Charlie Higson sighed, ‘It was like going on a very long drive with the kids in the back constantly fighting and squabbling and battling, and you had to keep your eye on the road.’

Cult shows like that come and go, whereas My Family (BBC1, Friday) seems to go on for ever. In fact, it’s only in its sixth series. It is firmly set in sitcom land, where everyone is a lovable eccentric, and every line a well-honed gag. It certainly doesn’t resemble any family you might meet, especially as they all seem to be idiotic and gullible beyond imagining. It is completely under the radar; unlike The Fast Show gags, repeated in school playgrounds, nothing in My Family is ever cool or referenced to anything else. Yet it could go on for ever, with the characters becoming loopier by the week, almost unnoticed.

Golly, how Scots hate Scotland. They think they don’t but they do. Rebus (ITV, Monday) is set in Edinburgh, but this is not the majestic Athens of the north. It is squalid, filthy, violent, drug-ridden, with the stink of poverty oozing from the screen. Here was Trainspotting without the laughs. I think I counted two shots of the city’s handsome quarters, but it was pouring with rain so you couldn’t be sure. Rebus and his sidekick are decent enough but almost everyone else was evil and stupid. The Scottish Tourist Board must loathe the entire thing.

Hustle (BBC1, Friday) is back and has now reached the self-parodic stage most successful programmes go through. They even brought in Linford Christie to reprise an ancient gag, usually told about Frank Sinatra. It has become as camp as a Carry On. I still love it, simply because it never, ever takes itself seriously.


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