May 8, 2010 1:49 am

Hard men and high drama: life imitating art?

This has been the television election: the box remains, among other media, new or old, the Man

When this column appears we will know what government we have.

It’s usual to write that before an election. This time, though, it’s possible we won’t. Still, we do know that this has been the television election: the box remains, among other media, new or old, the Man.

Two events contributed to this. The party leaders’ debates became established as the central method of knowing whom you were voting for – which is up to a point good. Not so good was the fact that they brought you no nearer to knowing what you were voting for.

The prime minister’s gaffe, courtesy of a Sky TV radio mike, was the other. A crass misreading of a modest woman, a crasser attempt to blame an aide – all channels described it as a defining moment in the campaign and, probably, a final blow to Labour’s chances of holding power. But by defining it as such, they were speaking implicitly to the narcissism of current affairs broadcasting: its drive to incorporate the entire political world into its own ambit, and to judge political acts according to its need for drama. The gaffe was high drama, raising themes of hypocrisy, racism, contempt, penitence, humiliation. Such vibrant issues, especially within a real-life setting, are the lifeblood of television. No need for a post-election negotiation here. TV won: it is the Man still, and a hard man at that.

Three other hard men made their debut this week. In descending order of hardness, they were John Porter in Chris Ryan’s Strike Back (Sky1 Wednesdays), Luther (BBC1 Tuesdays) and Lewis (ITV1 Sundays) – all characters devoted to keeping us safe from harm.

In the first, Porter, ex-SAS, is haunted by an action in which two of his comrades are shot, perhaps through his misplaced act of mercy. He sets out to redeem a debt of honour, and rescue a captured journalist. Richard Armitage, who plays Porter, is back in secret service land – he plays Lucas North in Spooks. He’s one of the best action men on television, with actorly reserves enough to bring to life private griefs as well as public derring-do. Strike Back is fine for tension, good on sub-Bond dialogue; if some of the characters are cardboard, and the storyline makes Spooks look true to life, still it’s thrilling.

Luther is even better served for actors. Idris Elba (Luther), late of The Wire, can lapse into his own London accent here; Ruth Wilson (Alice), with her creepiest smile, can haunt and taunt him. We know she did it (kill her mother, father and dog), but Luther has to intuit and batter his way through his emotional maelstroms – a wife gone to another – in order to get the proof that she, a science prodigy, seeks to deny him. He’s a tormented man; only his steel trap of a mind gives him relief, allowing him to remain at peace when contemplating horror.

Lewis, unlike the other two, is a return, a fourth series for “Inspector Robbie Lewis and his partner DS Hathaway, investigating more murder mysteries against the glorious backdrop of Oxford” as the ITV press kit puts it. Where Porter is hard of body, mind and emotions, Luther of body and mind, Lewis is hard only of mind – the body is at best OK for middle age, and the emotions are way back behind the irony and the suppressed affection (for his detective sergeant, but wholly proper). Lewis and Hathaway, combining tradecraft and learning, unravel the mystery in the last 10 minutes. It’s leisurely, a little fusty, amiable.

I’ve already mourned the passing of The South Bank Show (ITV1 Sundays) twice – this is its last season – but it’s worth another lament. Why can’t the BBC pick it up? Is it because Alan Yentob, King of Arts, will not brook Melvyn Bragg in his realm? Last Sunday’s show, evoking David Hockney through his (and Melvyn’s) ages with clips from shows that had charted him through the years, was the usual: affectionate (a little too much), respectful, revealing.

Modern Masters (BBC1 Sundays), another new series, was also respectful – of Andy Warhol. Art critic Alastair Sooke is no Melvyn Bragg – but, skittish and show-off as he is, he got across to this sceptical viewer his conviction that Warhol, skittish and show-offy himself, changed the arts scene utterly. He anticipated the advent of celebrity by turning an unflinching gaze on the ordinary, so that his subjects revealed something of the self while the art apparently concentrated on the surface.

Would Warhol have done a silk screen print of Mohammed, had he lived longer? He survived one assassination attempt, in 1968, by a deranged ultra-feminist, Valerie Solanas; thereafter, he became more immersed in making money, more distant, saying that “ever since [being shot], I knew that I was watching television”. South Park (Comedy Central, most evenings), the scabrously funny cartoon series, recently showed Mohammed in a bear suit, but after an apparent death threat on an Islamist website the scene was censored. Last weekend, a Seattle-based cartoonist named Molly Norris proposed a “let’s everyone draw Mohammed day” – then, apparently appalled by her own audacity, backed quickly away.

TV has taken over destroying prime ministers from Her Majesty’s Opposition, taken over the breaking of taboos from avant-garde artists. You fear at times that Warhol is right: life is becoming television, television life.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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