Coup! (BBC2, Friday) was quite a brave programme. It was the story of the failed mercenary coup in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny but oil-sodden tyranny on the west coast of Africa. This was led by an adventurer called Simon Mann (I have often said it is a great mistake to trust anyone called Simon, unless, possibly, they are in hairdressing) and supported by Mark Thatcher. It would have been easy to run this as a grim, heart-of-darkness drama, with lessons for us all about the evil nature of imperialism, or the vile conspiracies of multinational corporations. Instead, they played it boldly, to a large extent, for laughs. The clue was in the name of the writer, John Fortune, who is best known these days for his duologues with John Bird on Bremner, Bird and Fortune on Channel 4 — which, though a comedy, is one of the few serious programmes left on that station.
You might say that Fortune is an investigative satirist, trying to find out what is really going on, rather than settling for the same old reach-me-down targets. Anyhow, the mood of perky good cheer was maintained by using the drum-and-whistling jazz classic ‘Big Noise from Winnetka’ as the linking music. Even one of the final scenes, in which the plotter Nick du Toit is seen hanging from his arms in a dungeon, had the air of a cartoon. (I was reminded of one of the many New Yorker drawings: in this the suspended prisoners hear: ‘And now, for your further listening pleasure, we once again present Pachelbel’s “Canon”.’)
Mark Thatcher was played by Robert Bathurst, who most of us remember as the feckless but well-intentioned character in Cold Feet. He played young Thatcher as a feckless but ill-intentioned character, lazily assuming that a moderate investment of money and a pointless investment of equipment (an unusable helicopter) would allow him to sit back and earn millions with neither risk nor effort. There was a scene which managed to be touching, funny and embarrassing all at the same time when his mother came to visit and he spent most of a party keeping the whisky away from her. (Spitting Image, celebrated on ITV last weekend, always showed her as a ferocious, masculine, whip-cracking type; handed this depiction of a raddled old soak they would have been quite horribly merciless.)
The air of ramshackle incompetence — even the soggiest drunks in the white clubs of South Africa seemed to know about the coming coup — gave a special sharpness to some of the lines. Thatcher is watching motor racing on the TV when his co-conspirator’s lawyer phones to ask for assistance: ‘Sir Mark, I’m representing Simon Mann. He’s in a bit of a fix. Would you be prepared to help him?’
‘I’m watching the Grand Prix. Have you no manners?’ Followed by a click.
But the lawyer is no better himself, concerned only to make sure he’ll get paid before he lifts a finger. Meanwhile, the wretched Mann is in a Zimbabwean gaol, where he has been tortured. He says to a visitor, waving at the slop bucket, ‘I’d ask you to empty that, but the shit isn’t even mine.’ Hard to find a pithier way of communicating the horrors of a Third World prison.
There were other pleasures, such as the sheer aimlessness of much ex-pat life in southern Africa. In some communities they sit around the pool at lunchtime, debating whose pool they will sit around that night. In the evening, they discuss where to go for lunch next day. No wonder everyone knew about the coup; they had nothing else to talk about. Nobody at all, except Mann’s wife and child, and perhaps the cynical yet idealised black South African special branch, who knew all about the coup more or less from the day the idea popped into Mann’s head, came out of it well — arrogant, greedy, vicious, contemptuous and contemptible, both the blacks and whites being racist. It was horrible but humorous, light-hearted yet loathsome, altogether an extraordinary drama.
Samuel Johnson: The Dictionary Man (BBC4, Monday) was also fascinating, not least watching how BBC4 can make a serviceable, even highly informative documentary at minimal expense. The clue: get actors who are competent but scarcely famous. They’ll do a good job for what Mark Thatcher would spend on a shirt. Use the same locations over and over again; that way you can get 15 minutes of usable material in one day. Have plenty of academics to be the talking heads — they tend to be so pleased to be on television (visions of a 13-part The History of My Subject dance in their heads) that they will appear for almost nothing, or even for free.
It works, which is perhaps more than can be said for How to Look Good Naked (Channel 4, Tuesday) in which a chap called Gok Wan (‘a man with a mission’) persuades women to feel comfortable in their own skin, and to get their kit off. Trouble is, we can’t take Mr Wan at all seriously, since he looks and talks like an idiot, and wears bizarre glasses underneath which you might grow early-season