for Sunday 7th April
[The Mail On Sunday, 2002]
TED AND ALICE
CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION
Channel 5, Saturday
GET CARMAN: THE TRIALS OF GEORGE CARMAN QC
THE CENTURY OF THE SELF
OVER at BBC1, an ingenious Somebody High Up has organised a village fête style tombola, involving every vaguely successful show in recent memory. Now no-one will have to think up an original idea ever again. First to be plucked from the spinning drum by Somebody High Up's lovely assistant were Ballykissangel, The Vicar Of Dibley and Third Rock From The Sun. Hence Ted And Alice, a romantic comedy series in which Stephen Tompkinson plays a covert and courtly intergalactic sex tourist, Dawn French plays optimistically for laughs, and the Lake District plays the scenery. The result combines the winsome frivolity of The X Files with the eerie menace of Mork & Mindy.
Despite nodding to modern rural blights - foot-and-mouth, juvenile delinquency, vigilante farmers - the show remains swaddled in a familiar, cosy rusticism of holiday brochure vistas populated by quaint eccentrics. To suspend one's disbelief required a heavier-duty block and tackle than I could lay hands on. Mork & Mindy, for all its daftness, was based upon a plausible premise - indeed, the only plausible premise - about Robin Williams: that he came from another planet. Ted And Alice very occasionally sparkles with stardust, but so far feels all too earthbound.
Randy hopefuls were flocking to the Lakes this week. In ITV's one off Easter offering, The Quest, three aging Londoners reminisced about a youthful jolly to Cumbria. Told mainly in flashback, this was a shockingly, shamefully, insultingly poor piece of television, Marcel Proust as rewritten by Dennis Potter's idiot stepson, in crayon. The draw was David Jason, who spent his screen time smiling wistfully and shaking his head in exaggerated, silent-movie semaphore. “That takes me back,” he said, and was promptly taken back.
Billed as comedy drama, The Quest delivered neither. Instead it piled cliché upon cliché until my jaw hung slacker than the script - a slipshod assemblage of Fifties signposts which may be summarised thus:
CHEEKY CHAPPIE 1: “Blimey, Charlie, we need to get our ends away before the Suez crisis leads to the humiliation and departure from office of Prime Minister Antony Eden.”
CHEEKY CHAPPIE 2: “Lor' lumme, Ronno, I'm too busy singing this Lonnie Donegan song and drooling over Health an' Efficiency to worry about that malarkey.”
Rationing must have been more fun than this, and surely didn't go on half as long. According to the credits, the whole farrago originated “from an idea by David Jason.” Evidently, broadcasting brass don't dare say no to the man. Come Christmas, it's anybody's guess as to how many hours of prime time will be filled by David Jason Sings In The Bath (from an idea by David Jason). Get your requests in now; I hear he does a lovely Nessun Dorma.
The Quest was witless and blokeish. Ted And Alice belongs to a condescendingly feminized genre wherein women are either Good Eggs or Rotten Cows, while men are so uniformly oafish and dimwitted that only an alien offers hope of romance. But CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is pure, ripsnorting machismo. The title theme of this forensic pathology cop series is blasted out by The Who. Dare-you-to look visual gimmicks depict the slo-mo progress of metal through flesh and bone. Autopsies are filmed from inside the body looking out. It's as dazzling and macabre a fifty minutes as you're likely to find on the box. Good going for a show which is really just a rocket-powered Quincy.
CSI is set in a Las Vegas whose strip, like the Moebius variety, consists entirely of a sleazy underside. It stars Hannibal Lecter's first movie adversary, William Petersen, as the enigmatic department chief Gil Grissom. A clever bit of casting, but not as clever as recruiting a hip and savvy crime-solving team - radiating hi-tech, can-do mystique - from the geeks who form its core audience. CSI is no less blatant a composite than Ted & Alice, but it moves with such speed, stealth and verve that you never catch its seams showing.
Nobody would say a bad word about George Carman QC while he was alive - or if they did, nobody else would repeat it. The consensus had it that vilifying a barrister famously successful in libel cases was best avoided. Among newspapers, the approach echoed that reputedly taken by Franklin D Roosevelt toward the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a bitch.”
Carman is, of course, dead now, but many of the interviewees featured in Get Carman still sounded distinctly nervous as they put the boot in. You sensed them tensing up, and straining to hear the flutter of a writ through the letterbox. Those were the lucky ones, who had faced him in court. Devastating as his cross-examination could be, the litigants in question had usually brought it upon themselves. The same could not be said for the women he cruelly knocked about while in his cups. In this over long biography, Carman's career at the bar was frostily dramatised by David Suchet; recounting his career as a wife-beater, drunk and profligate gambler was left to those afflicted by it. Wife number one was matter-of fact. Wife number two, 26 years on, looked numb, drained and shell shocked. Wife number three seemed remarkably cheerful, all things considered. So now it can be told: Much-Feared Lawyer Not Very Nice Man. Well, dog my cats.
The Century Of The Self reveals what can happen when you let someone with a real idea make television. The third instalment of four dealt with Wilhelm Reich, an ostracized disciple of Freud who preached psychological liberation through sex, and built machines to control the weather. The latter development so spooked the Cold War US government that it locked him away, an archetypal instance of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nutcase. Reich's contraptions were harmless; his ideas were not. This superb documentary fluently, and with striking clarity, joined the dots between Reich's doctrine of orgasmic fulfilment, the Sixties radical left, new age solipsism and Margaret Thatcher's pronouncement that there is “no such thing as society.” It was illuminating throughout, and some of the group therapy footage was screamingly funny. Literally so. Folk were spread about on the floor in their hundreds, keening and ululating as if they'd been made to sit through The Quest. From self-reliance to self-indulgence is a short downhill journey, and it was Reich who oiled our skates and gave us a push. God help us if there's a war. Ah. There is.
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