23 OCTOBER 1999, Page 68


What a mishmash

Simon Hoggart

Mchael Palin's Hemingway Adventure (BBC 1) is an extraordinary mishmash. We began with PalM on a Suffolk beach, illus- trating the kind of dreary holiday which drove him to read Hemingway in the first place. Actually I've always found Papa much duller than the Suffolk coast and rather embarrassing — a sort of Lonely Planet guide written by William McGona- gall. He exists mainly to help the syllabus stuffers in American universities, and he probably wouldn't be read anywhere now if he hadn't been Ameridan. Nothing quoted in the programme made me change my mind. Patin quite rightly fell asleep in the middle of one of his books.

But it turned out that this was only to set up the dreaded dream sequence. Some clever dick had strapped a pair of bull's horns to the front of a camera, so as the crew followed him it looked as if he was being chased by a pantomime bull. Then get this — he woke up in Pamplona, where the real bull-running was on. Memo to the BBC: this is not new. We have seen this event very many times. The mimsy, self- conscious introduction only made things worse.

Next Patin was on a train for Valencia, where he was going to do lots of things, 'some of them physically dangerous. But I'm game [meaningful look to camera] — if you are!' No, Mike, we're at home watch- ing TV. We're in no danger. We don't send flowers when soap characters die, either.

In Valencia, we couldn't just meet a bull- fighter. Palin had to be fake-interrupted by a Python fan ('just a minute, I'm filming') who offers to take him to a bullfighter, as if it hadn't all been set up by the advance team weeks before. 'When you're in the ring, do you respect the bull?' he asked, a question straight out of Hemingway. I Yearned for the matador to reply: 'When You go to McDonald's, do you respect the Big Mac?' but of course he, like Ernesto, had fallen for all that man versus nature's elemental forces drivel.

Just when I thought it could get no worse, there was a glimmer of hope. 'What ant I eating?' Palin enquired. 'Zose are beull's testeecles,' said his new friend, and I feared two minutes of hilarious gagging and Les Dawson-style faces to camera. Instead, Palin did some serious under-mug- ging, and got it exactly right.

Then there was impressive footage of the matador being hooked into his costume, and kissing religious postcards before he went into the ring. The close-ups of his tense, worried, fearful face during the fight were genuinely moving, and unlike any I'd seen.

The Africa sequence which followed was the same blend — a quiet daze of cliche (herds of animals sweeping majestically in front of the BBC plane for the 857th time this year) plus really fascinating material, such as the aftermath of a 13-year-old boy's ritual circumcision. 'Within five days he'll start to walk round the village,' said one elder, 'but not very far.' Palin did a funny fashion-model turn based on a macho Hemingway hunting jacket he was wearing, and an amusing tour of his big game-inten- sive bathroom at the lodge. But then he curled my toes up again by jokily waving the camera away before he sat down for a dump. That's the kind of grinding artificial TV Monty Python used to pastiche. I felt there were two directors: one who'd learned nothing in 30 years, and another who would have made a fascinating, funny and informative TV programme if the other had got out of his way.

Something for the Weekend (Channel 4) has been widely criticised for being filthy. It isn't; it's jokey smut, a sort of weekly office Christmas party. The problem is that Denise Van Outen isn't good enough. She runs around the studio in the fashionable manner, leering and winking at the camera, but she has no more screen personality than a sandwich toaster.

The cable channels have minuscule audi- ences, and UK Arena isn't even listed in the Broadcast magazine ratings. But it did show last year's BBC tribute to the late John Wells this week, and having met Wells two or three times, I was delighted to catch up. Clearly he was as delightful,

witty, charming and agreeable as everyone thought. His daughter Dolly was the star of the show, partly because she managed the trick of being beautiful while looking exact- ly like him. I had only one niggling thought. Tributes to comedians tend to be our mod- ern Lives of the Saints. A profile of a politician that wasn't harsh, sceptical and rebarbative would be criticised for being bland. A profile of a satirist that was all those things would be thought disgracefully offensive. I yearn for someone to say that 'Charlie Figgis was a miserable, tight-fisted, plagiaristic idiot who was loathed by all who met him'. But somehow they never do.