My most earnest advice to Matt Smith, who plays Doctor Who in the eponymous series (BBC1 Saturdays) and thus, as a man of reason and learning, will read the FT, is to get out of the series. You have been written in as a preening, self-obsessed know-it-all, and before you know it, people will think that’s you, and you’ll be typecast. The money will be good, no doubt, but better do Aladdin at Great Yarmouth Marina Leisure Centre than continue in what has become a parodic vehicle for bad jokes and cardboard nightmares. And it can’t even get you a Bafta.
The British Academy of Film and Television Arts held its award ceremony last weekend (BBC1 Saturday), and it was hard work to stay with it for two hours. The jokes made Doctor Who look good, the acceptance “speeches” jerked out like water from ancient pipes and – a moment of almost pleasurable surprise – Tracey Emin turned up to present an award in a dress that would not have looked out of place in a Turner Prize show, her bruiser’s face looking embarrassed.
Smith missed out, rightly, to Daniel Rigby, who played Eric Morecambe in the jaunty drama Eric and Ernie on BBC2 in January. So did Benedict Cumberbatch, who had been seen as the only actor who could deny the Doctor his Bafta mask, with his playing of Sherlock, also eponymous (BBC1 last summer). I didn’t like that much either. Cumberbatch was pressed into the same mould as Smith (they have the same writers). In Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes’s arrogance was actually a proper pride in his art, his only salve to despair. In Sherlock, Cumberbatch was directed to show a universal condescension, starting with Watson. Martin Freeman, who played the good doctor well enough, got a supporting Bafta – more mud in the eye to Cumberbatch, even if it wasn’t his category. For all that he played Sherlock wrong, he is a very gifted actor.
Adam Curtis’s documentary career has been dedicated to exposing the ideas that have moved our times. For the most part, these are presented as delusions of small groups inserted into the policies of the ruling classes – as The Power of Nightmares (BBC2 2004), in which he set out to show the equivalence between al-Qaeda and the US neo-conservatives, both requiring an enemy: or The Century of the Self (BBC4 2002), in which Freudianism is transmuted, through the work of his nephew Edward Bernays, creator of public relations, into a machine for promoting consumption. His three-part series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (BBC2 Mondays) conforms to the pattern: once again, a small group of political extremists – disciples of the Russian-American libertarian novelist Ayn Rand in the postwar decades – managed to dictate an agenda to the world. This was free market fundamentalism, whose main carrier was the early Randian and later Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. It was crossed with a Randian individualist faith, held by some of the early Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, that total human autonomy was possible with the aid of computer networks, making governments increasingly irrelevant.
Curtis’s stuff is kind of fun, but it depends on too many fallacies, unproven deductions and irrelevancies. Truly, free market principles became the advice mantra of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as that of the US and other western governments; and, truly, there have been crises, such as that whose aftershocks we live through still. But those economies that Curtis says were destroyed in the late 1990s – such as Indonesia and South Korea – are all growing, even thriving, again. China’s massive marketisation has given it double-digit growth, while India’s lurch into the market is giving its bigger neighbour competition. The big problem of the stricken European states is not free market practice, but vast private or public indebtedness, a consequence, often, of fiscal recklessness. There’s an argument to be had with Curtis, here as elsewhere – for he takes the rare trouble to think in film. But his attention is easily diverted. This first episode digressed at length on Rand’s “rational” affair with one of her disciples, and Bill Clinton’s better-known liaison with Monica Lewinsky. Both of interest, but not to his theme, which got lost.
Louis Theroux (Miami Mega Jail, BBC2 Sundays) has inserted himself into Miami’s biggest, roughest jail, where, in the first episode, he talked to a man who proudly told him how the weak are – and should be – preyed on by the strong in the 10- to 20-man cages in which prisoners are kept, usually awaiting trial. He also talked to a slight, college-educated man, just moved to this Darwinian hell because of an alleged escape attempt in an easier prison, who spoke as if going to his death – and maybe he is, for all the staff said they could do about it.
Prince Philip at 90 (ITV1 Tuesday) caused something close to affection in the breast of this member of the 19 per cent of Britons who don’t like the monarchy (according to a BBC poll). He was refreshingly nightmarish as an interviewee before a deferential Alan Titchmarsh (“what do you mean, did I regret it?” – giving up his promising naval career in 1953 to be consort to the Queen – “I got on with it”). Getting on with it, as Titchmarsh pointed out, was the mantra of his generation. There are worse words to live by, and I guess there could have been many worse consorts.
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