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Television Reviews
for Sunday 5th January


[The Mail On Sunday, 2003]



THE REAL JANE AUSTEN
Monday, BBC1
*

SEX AND THE CITY UNCOVERED
New Year's Day, Channel 4
**

SEX AND THE CITY
New Year's Day, Channel 4
*****

SERIOUS AND ORGANISED
Thursday, ITV1
*

BEIJING SWINGS
Thursday, Channel 4
****

ENOUGH IS enough, item one: TV profile titles prefaced with “The Real”. The Real Jane Austen, for instance. As differentiated from The Unreal Jane Austen, who wrote novels between spells as a safecracker and a bare-knuckle prizefighter. And The Surreal Jane Austen, whose head was that of a cormorant with a Dali moustache superimposed upon the beak.
  Having exhausted Austen as a source for costume drama, the Beeb now turns to her for costume documentary - frockumentary, if you will.
  Costume drama is bad enough, not only for the bloodless, formulaic television it produces, but also for the disservice it does to literature, boiling down Europe's diverse canon into uniformly insipid pulp. Austen, Eliot, Stendhal; the pattern on the bowl may vary, but the porridge is always the same.
  This travesty was worse still. Its choice of on-screen guide indicated just how brazen has been the commandeering of Austen et al by the fake heritage industry: Anna “Duckface” Chancellor, an actor whose sole expertise lay in having once taken a secondary role in an Austen adaptation. Plus she boasted a distant blood tie to the author. Cue reference after self-satisfied reference to “my great aunt Jane”.
  The programme was, to quote Austen herself on another subject, “All vapour, shadow, smoke and confusion.” The wheeze of having Austen's “family” speak to the camera, as if in spontaneous interviews, was an infuriatingly facile one. After promising to reveal what the novels did not, the script fell back repeatedly on those novels - and, inevitably, on the BBC's own clip depository. We found out little that an A-level student, or indeed a moderately alert gibbon with a TV licence, would not already know. Such an attempt to stitch together the flimsiest and most threadbare material would have delighted Jane Austen's frugal mother. I am not Jane Austen's frugal mother, and it irritated the hell out of me.
  As did Sex And The City Uncovered, which apparently I shouldn't have been watching at all. This was documentary by demographics. Sex And The City is about youngish professional metropolitan women. Thus we endured endless banalities from viewers fitting that profile - a technique which marred what might have been a diverting glance behind the scenes. Would similar accounts of HBO's other brilliant successes - The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Larry Sanders Show - have confined themselves to opinions from, respectively, mafiosi, undertakers and talk show hosts?
  The youngish professional metropolitan woman who shares my sofa had steam coming out of her ears. She was insulted by the notion that her pleasure in S&TC is purely sociological. She likes S&TC for the same reasons I do. As the first episode of the fifth series amply demonstrated, it's a wonderful




   show on the top of its form, slick, clever and engrossing, with a knack of making the blindingly obvious seem insightful. Or so I'm guessing, being unable to relate to any televised characters even slightly unlike myself.
Enough is enough, item two: maverick cops. Who's ready for a procedural about a conformist flatfoot who gets on famously with his colleagues, enjoys a happy home life and efficiently solves crimes by the book? Not ITV1, that's for sure.
  Serious And Organized cut a dash from the get-go by contradicting both parts of its title. It involved a pair of London detectives, one of whom was Martin Kemp, and one of whom wasn't. They drove around in a convertible, bantered, riled the boss, menaced the villains and turned the ladies' heads. Picture Miami Vice remade by the team from Eastenders. But even funnier.
  The duo were brothers. They had a catchphrase - “I'm DC Finn; so's he” - which irresistibly called to mind The Two Ronnies. To be fair, the neatly old-fashioned plotline did evoke an earlier, classic cop show: Police Squad, starring Leslie Nielsen. “From now on, you'll be doing your armoured car robbery in the Statesville prison. You slag.”
  Compare Serious And Organized to its nearest contemporary American equivalent, Channel 5's The Shield, and you have to wonder what's gone wrong. It's not just the dazzle of Yankee exoticism which makes The Shield seem superior - it is superior. It's superbly crafted, and it has the ring of truth about it. Serious and Organized had only the ring of the stage school bell.
  By now you'll have heard the hubbub over Beijing Swings, which featured photographs of a Chinese artist apparently eating a roasted stillborn infant. Said the artist in question, Zhu Yu, “Our subconscious tells us that eating babies is not right.” Our subconscious might have a point there, Yu. Still, repellent as these pictures were, they were no more horrifying than Goya's 1823 “black painting”, Saturn Devouring One Of His Children, universally acknowledged as a masterpiece.
  “It's fallen to China,” explained Waldemar Januszczak, presenter of this intriguing programme, “suddenly to become the global leader of outrageous artistic progressiveness.” He wasn't wrong. The Brit Art pack, with their ever more feeble echoes of revolutionary pranksters Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, were made to look like dilettantes.
  Curiously - in light of this - it became clear that Beijing's conceptual and performance artists are essentially the same crowd of damaged, petulant, self-regarding exhibitionists as their Bitish counterparts. What set them apart was context. And in conceptualism, context is everything. Here, shock art is a matter of routine, created by the bourgeoisie to shock the bourgeoisie - and we, the bourgeoisie, duly oblige by acting shocked. In China, where unwanted girls are starved to death in orphanages, people may be that much harder to appal.
  While the UK's shock troops risk nothing worse than lucrative censure, China's are liable to be locked up and have their studios bulldozed. Beijing's own Charles Saatchi figure, Li Xianting, lives under a house arrest order and is banned from fraternizing with artists. He was filmed cheerfully ignoring both strictures: “For twenty years I have been in trouble, but it doesn't bother me.”
  As Hong Kong gallery owner Chang Tsong-zung pointed out, Beijing's artists could never be as radical or destructive as China's communist governments. Which means it's only a matter of time before our more obtuse tastemakers - and Januszczak is certainly not one of these - acclaim Mao Tse-tung as a major unacknowledged talent.









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