for Sunday 31st August
[The Mail On Sunday, 2003]
THE ONE AND ONLY ROLLING STONES
BBC 1, Sunday
THE REAL NED KELLY
Channel 4, Saturday
ITV1, Monday & Tuesday
BEFORE WE get started, a word about Channel 4. “Psychic Night”? Coinciding with Living TV's “Paranormal Weekend”? You expect this kind of piffle from Living, which appears to be scheduled in its entirety from beyond the veil, and might as well be renamed Dead But Won't Shut Up TV, or perhaps The Credulity Channel. But Channel 4?
Not that I'm reviewing it. The psychics should already know what I think, and I don't want to waste everybody else's time. But for the station that brought us Equinox to don the fig leaf of scientific enquiry and go skinny-dipping in this muddy little puddle is disheartening, even for the silly season.
More of that which does not live, yet will not die: like Tolkein's ring wraiths, The Rolling Stones once again stalk the land. The One And Only Rolling Stones was a grisly Dr Moreau-style splicing of three different programmes. A banal promotional plug for the Stones' current tour; a by-the-numbers nostalgia drill with obligatory talking heads (including Bono, surely the world's most star-struck star, who evidently achieved fame as an alternative to becoming a celebrity stalker); and a decent bit of archive research, which might have been the basis for an entertaining chronicle of a substantial subject.
Instead, the clips were ruined by one of those asinine, matey, jocular narrations that remind you of being trapped next to some desperate wag in a theme pub. Nobody vaguely familiar with the group could possibly have gleaned any fresh insights, bar the following: (a) The Stones' first original composition was a Rice Krispies jingle; (b) Pierce Brosnan had his collar felt at the 1969 free concert in Hyde Park, while performing in a street theatre puppet troupe. One of these facts is funnier than the other; I can't decide which. The Stella Street impressions of Mick and Keith were funnier still, although as a comedy Keith Richards impersonator, John Sessions has always been overshadowed by Ronnie Wood.
Among those topics tactfully omitted was Mick Jagger's film career, featuring his peculiar turn as Ned Kelly, distinguished by an Irish accent even worse than his Cockney one. As The Real Ned Kelly warned us, another movie celebrating the outback brigand is soon to reach our screens. “Is this man Australia's greatest rebel hero,” it pondered, “or simply a murderous thug?”
Now, when it comes to historical revisionism, Australia leads the world, thanks to the cinematic output of Mel Gibson. Mel himself is a former transvestite hooker, spaniel abuser and dealer in tainted heroin. These claims are utterly false, of course; but Mel surely won't mind me “adapting” the facts to make them more dramatic. What is true, by the by, is that Mel shares membership in the breakaway Traditionalist Catholic church with his dad Hutton, who believes the slaughter of six million Jews during World War II never took place.
Compared to that, transforming an egomaniacal bandit into a national icon is light work. Ned Kelly seems to have been a prototype for the likes of David Koresh and the Unabomber. He wrote bloated, self justifying diatribes, which can be boiled down to the perennial and far more succinct low-life hypothesis that “all coppers are bastards”. He sought his own destruction at the hands of the state, and tried to take as many others with him as possible. The only appealing thing about him was his battle cry - “Surrender be buggered!” - which, while lacking the steadfast nobility of, for instance, “They shall not pass”, does have an endearing Aussie forthrightness to it.
As ever, one man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. Kelly may have made a stand against a corrupt and venal colonial power, but his own obsessive worldview and brutal actions had nothing to recommend them. His references to Catholics, Saxons and Thomas Cranmer demonstrate just how durable - and exportable - a bane sectarianism can be.
Experience rather than prejudice tells me, when a new ITV drama arrives, to pre-heat the oven, dig out the baster, whet the carving knife and prepare to feast on turkey. Pot-boilers. Vehicles for doomed ex-soap stars which lose their wheels, doors and hood ornaments before the first ad break. Toe-curlingly camp melodramas. . . sound familiar? Thus Alibi proved to be a bracing surprise.
Considering all that was good about Alibi, it was frustrating that the show as a whole wasn't better. The script was by Paul Abbott, who has a fine ear for real conversations. There was an excellent performance from Michael Kitchen, who - for a bet, maybe - successfully channelled the voice and mannerisms of Prince Charles into a put-upon accidental killer; and a creditable one from Sophie Okonedo, as a benefit fraud officer whose familiarity with excuses and wheezes she set to Kitchen's advantage.
What went missing, unfortunately, were tension and plausibility, key ingredients of any thriller. The plot teetered precariously on our accepting that Okonedo would, for no apparent reason, put her own neck in the noose to help Kitchen. I waited for the explanation: was she a compulsive busybody, an adrenalin addict, a blue ribbon looney-tune? It never came. And in fairness, if it had done, it might have looked cheap and spurious. Abbott deserves credit for refusing to pull rabbits out of his hat. He just needed a smarter hat in the first place, if you follow me.
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