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Quality treat

The Diary of Anne Frank (BBC1, Monday to Friday); Oz and James Drink to Britain (BBC2, Tuesday)

7 January 2009

12:00 AM

7 January 2009

12:00 AM

There are still some things that the BBC does incredibly well, and The Diary of Anne Frank (BBC1, Monday to Friday) was one. It’s the licence fee that allows the corporation to take these risks, and next time the Murdoch press whinges about it, you might contemplate the limitless dross we would have to suffer if it went. (By the way, taking the Times and the Sunday Times for a year costs nearly three times as much as the licence fee. I wonder which most people would think better value?)

If Anne Frank had lived, she would have been 80 this year. Over the decades the story has become sanitised in the popular imagination. Delightful, heroic, saintly family living together in appalling circumstances, in the end betrayed by someone unknown. True as far as it went, but Deborah Moggach created a richer narrative by going back to the original diary (Otto Frank, Anne’s father, and the only survivor from the attic, censored the first edition, taking out references to her own sexuality and her bad relationship with her mother). What we got was a more affecting tale, of a teenager with the usual resentments and tantrums, forced to live in a claustrophobic confinement, trying to rebel against people who were never more than a few feet away. Anne was petulant about the things all girls of that age are cross about — their parents and siblings, but smaller grievances too, like not being let into the bathroom. So we got the toilet timetable of Albert Dussel, a fellow prisoner, played with wonderful sensitivity by Nicholas Farrell, simultaneously sympathetic and deeply annoying.

The 150 minutes were filled with telling moments: the family’s faces when someone describes a wedding, narrated entirely in terms of the food. The joy when they get a real cake. The panic when burglars break into the offices below; they assume it must be the police. The terror when one of the women has a tooth out, and cannot stop screaming. The radiant hope with which they hear the news about D-Day.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that the story has an unhappy ending. But this was handled deftly too: the police were cold but not cruel, businesslike really. The last we see is the family being led downstairs as on-screen captions describe their fate. When Otto was released he still thought he might find his daughters again and learning they had died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen must have been unspeakable.

I was reminded of the Big Brother house, in which imprisoned people also work out their grievances and resentments, while trying to fashion some kind of life for themselves. They even have a diary room. How fortunate we are that, in order to recreate this experience, we have to make it artificial, coarse and commercial.

The acting was of a very high order. Tamsin Greig as Mrs Frank was superb, making an entirely successful shift from her usual light comedy roles. Ellie Kendrick was a heart-stirringly believable Anne; we shall, I am sure, hear much more of her.

But in spite of its triumphs, the BBC has its nervous tics. I’ve mentioned before the fear felt by programme controllers that some viewer, somewhere, might be bored even for a few seconds. Oz and James Drink to Britain (BBC2, Tuesday) was a good idea. I’ve chatted to Oz Clarke and he is every bit as charming and clever as his TV persona. I have never met James May, but I suspect he is more charming and clever than he cares to let on. So a series in which they discover great booze made in Britain should be both beguiling and informative. And we did learn a little bit about beer. Not a lot, because the producers were far too busy with business. Oz apparently turns up late for the start of their trip. Why? Obviously he wasn’t really late, any more than I believe they actually lived in a caravan toured by a Rolls. Why did they pretend to have lost their train tickets? Why did we see them ‘accidentally’ tow the caravan past the place they were visiting, and have to turn it round by hand? It was done on purpose, it wasn’t remotely funny and it wasted time. I’m not saying we should have had a solemn lecture on beer brewing, but a bit more information and a bit less winsome whimsy would have been welcome.

Hustle is back on BBC1, and Trial and Retribution on ITV. What’s the difference? Hustle is silly but funny. T&R is silly but glum. I know which I prefer. Thank goodness for the licence fee.

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