Triumphs, failures and Mandelson

TV watching demands discrimination. Programmes come at you in unending streams. To organise your responses and to avoid becoming a couch potato, you cannot but compare one drama or comedy with another.

So, a comparison. Peep Show (C4, Fridays) suffers by being on air during the same autumn weeks as Miranda (BBC2, Mondays). In the former, the comedy depends on the underlying perception that men are useless animals, breaking like feeble tides against feminine rocks of determination, malice or loveliness. Miranda is built round Miranda Hart, the most original and farcically hilarious female clown since Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

In Peep Show, David Mitchell and Robert Webb bumble about seeking sex, love and approval. Mitchell is a funny man but he has groomed his wit for the many comedy panel shows that depend on rapid-fire jokes, oscillating between stand-up comedy and cynical knowingness. Given a script that, in the first episode, seeks comedy out of the agony of childbirth, Mitchell is set in scene after scene where the spark of real humour (as against an idea of where humour should be) is rarely struck.

Another – dramatic – comparison. Any Human Heart (C4 Sundays) suffers up against The Accused (BBC1 Mondays), which I praised last week. They are wholly different in period, approach and origin. The first is an adaptation of the 2002 novel by William Boyd, the second a series written for TV by Jimmy McGovern with six stories focusing on crime and punishment. It is largely because Any Human Heart comes out of a novelist’s imagination and The Accused from a TV craftsman’s that the first falters and the second is a triumph.

Boyd wrote the character of Logan Mountstuart to show that the human being is a collection of constantly shifting atoms. Lacking the reflective resources available to the novelist, the necessary truncation of television can only make Mountstuart into a chameleon, inconstant in love and marriage. The shifts (and shiftiness) before the women who want him renders inconsequential and marginal his meetings with Ernest Hemingway and the future Edward VIII, with Wallis Simpson already in tow. What is deliberate in the novel seems like a lost opportunity on television.

The piece looks up when Matthew Macfadyen takes over Mountstuart from Sam Claflin on attaining early middle age. Claflin is good but Macfadyen is a minor star, who doesn’t mould himself round the characters he plays but moulds the characters round himself. A small irony: the independent channels, once priding themselves on demotic drama, now often retreat into the fastness of upper class costume drama (with ratings success: see ITV’s Downton Abbey), while the BBC gets gritty.

The surviving current affairs programmes eschew grittiness more often than not, having learnt that their viewers are middle class and care about what they and their families have to lose: thus a spate of Panorama programmes on tax. An older radicalism remains spottily: recent episodes of C4’s Dispatches (Mondays) included exposés of homeless children and sweat shops in the developing world.

This past week, both the major current affairs programmes – crazily competing for viewers at the same time – concentrated on Islamist extremism. Dispatches went to Pakistan and showed an overstretched and under-resourced Islamabad police force constantly on the back foot against terrorists who had claimed 25,000 victims in the past three years. Their fanaticism extended to blowing up women in the Islamic University, presumably because they had the audacity to wish to learn.

John Ware’s Panorama (BBC1, Mondays) report revealed that thousands of British Muslim children were being taught in part-time schools using a Saudi textbook, which showed how punishment amputations were to be done, advocated death for homosexuals and contained the foulest imprecations against Jews. The programme generated some coverage but less than such revelations deserved.

Storyville’s film, Mandelson: The Real PM? (BBC4 Tuesday), was a kind of revelation, too, but of what? The product of many hours with the man brought in by Gordon Brown to save his premiership – and, from this film’s evidence, rarely convinced that the labour was other than Sisyphean – The Real PM? showed a man with a constant sense of the ironies of his position. The hated destroyer of Brown’s earlier prime ministerial ambitions was now Brown’s best hope for keeping them alive.

Hannah Rothschild’s film caught this but it also caught the Peter Mandelson we have known for some time – a man who enjoyed playing with her earnest efforts to “get below the mask”, drenching her film in the charm and mockery that is his protective shell, no doubt with a smug little glow that he was being profiled by a Rothschild. The core of his public contribution to British political life – the fanatically hardworking, serious and acute political brain – remained as invisible to the media here as it has been for the rest of his quarter of a century in public life.

In her coda, Rothschild asked Mandelson – he was attended, as ever, by an aide – if he was ever alone. Half-ironic, half-exasperated, he replied: “I’m a professional politician, not a mannequin.” But the media, and even this film, wished to make him the latter, and he indulged us yet again.

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