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Could their telly be worse than their soccer?

‘Do try and get out a bit when you’re there,’ said a concerned friend. ‘You know what you’re like about British telly.’ ‘Quality with a capital Kwer, wasn’t it?’ said another, sipping the cuppa I’d just made her. I quelled her with a glance before launching into a list of all the things I expected to see in Britain that were not actually bounded by a TV screen. Then I started putting them right about the British TV thing. Un­biased news coverage, I said. Free and independent commentary, I said. Intelligent quiz shows, said I. Brilliant new comedies and adaptations of great works, I continued. I must have gone on a bit about it because when I eventually finished they were in deep conversation, being horribly kind about an absent friend, something I was also about to become quite soon.

Well, they’re being reasonably kind to me now I’m back: they love being vindicated. To put it mildly, most of British TV makes you understand why they like Neighbours and Home and Away so much. There is a kind of bad TV that is compulsively watchable, and there is a kind of bad TV that sends you out to look at the tourist sites even when you are only there to visit relatives: British museums and monuments and markets are doing great business.

First the good stuff. Patrick Kielty’s Almost Live was a clever, vicious Backberner type of show that flayed Bush and Blair with a potted history of the bin Laden/Taliban/CIA/Bush Snr./Gulf War/oil connection that any child could understand. And I was able to save about 40 zillion dollars not going to Covent Garden because the Royal Opera House’s latest (David McVicar) production of the opera I wanted to see, Mozart’s Magic Flute, was televised on BBC2. There was some really good singing, particularly from Simon Keenlyside (a fantastic Papageno) and Dorothea Roschman as a bang-on-accurate Pamina—and Colin Davis was conducting. And it was fun to sit there and bag John MacFarlane’s truly awful po-mo ragbag costumes and the dreary black stage sets while appreciating Davis’ wise, singer-friendly tempi making Mozart’s music even more humane and gorgeous. But Roschman should never forgive MacFarlane for putting her well-rounded soprano form into a boned bodice which was strapless and kept threatening to become topless whenever she took a deep breath. In ‘Ach, ich fühls’ it was touch and go. And the skirt was of layered grey-brown tulle that looked as though it had been through a dogfight. The effect was very much the battered ballerina, a sylphide down on her luck. The Three Ladies were all done up in drag-artist ballgowns. The Queen of the Night (sung competently but rather thinly by Diana Damrau) was more of the same but was allowed a pointy vampire hairline. Papagena was dressed as a 20th-century Amsterdam hooker, while all the blokes were allowed to swan around in 18th-century brocade dressing gowns and knee breeches—except for Papageno and the Three Boys, whose garb was puzzlingly and tastelessly Warsaw ghetto. But Thomas Allen was the Speaker of the Temple and it doesn’t get much better vocally than that.

But oh deary me, the debit side. The really old movies at prime time (Dances With Wolves, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Last Action Hero); the terrible morning shows; the witless cooking shows; the interminable soaps; the scarily boring game shows; the endless array of reality TV shows. One of the last-mentioned was called Wife Swap. Two families, hand-picked for deep emotional incompatibility and class conflict, swap their wives and mothers for a fortnight. In the episode I saw, a legal secretary with a nerdy sort of spouse and a spoilt and needy four-year-old daughter was swapped with a breezy mother of six whose husband was a nightclub bouncer. I hasten to add that there was no sex, but to say that decencies were observed would be to assert that indecency is only about inappropriate genital activity. There is no decency and no kindness in these programs. Unfortunately it was a great success, and will be copied in America, which means that it will probably get here unless we’re very lucky.

We also had the doubtful privilege of seeing the Martin Bashir interview with Michael Jackson before anywhere else in the world. It was harrowing and awful and disturbing, but hardly more so than some of the commentary afterwards: one expert on a chat show next morning asserted that the real problem was that Jackson must have a yeast infection making him irrational. Did he or didn’t he molest the children he slept with? The question was thrown around endlessly by press and TV pundits. All that came of it was a feeling of decadence and wasted words: we were no nearer to the truth than when we began.

The New Yorker seemed to say it best in its own elegant way: the following week carried a Leo Cullum cartoon of Peter Pan in court. The judge was saying to his lawyer, ‘Your client’s refusal to grow up does not preclude him from being tried as an adult.’ And while we’re on cartoonists, the legendary Bruce Petty has a series of short animations coming up in March on ABC. Watch out for them: their reality is a damn sight more real than reality TV. ?

Juliette Hughes is a freelance, and peripatetic, writer.



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