24 MAY 1986, Page 36


Out of this world

Peter Levi

There is plenty of decent, mildly in- teresting television if you peck about for it, except at bank holidays, which the author- ities use to show what they really think of us all. Sometimes even the worst serious programmes are fairly funny. An implausi- ble Russian called Adamov talking about the Chernobyl disaster on Panorama (BBC1) gave me great pleasure, because not only did he look and sound like a liar, but his American accent and his semi- official, smiling phrases added to the effect. He might have been a White House spokesman under Nixon, and this gave one a warm, nostalgic glow. His main point, that Western television has been hysterical about Chernobyl, was one with which I sympathise, but from such a deadhead even that was hard to accept. I am not clear how much irony and malice lay behind Panorama's displaying him at such length, but he certainly brightened up a deadly dull programme. He was clearly chosen with great care by the Russians because he looked bonhomous.

And thank heaven for pretentiousness. I survived several minutes of Society, Science and Sex (ITV) with pleasure, be- cause I could scarcely believe my eyes. The presenter cavorted among a horseshoe of scientists whom he treated like pupils. He grinned inanely and he turned his back on the camera. It was a funny performance all right, but dislike of him took over. The worst programme I have ever seen in my life was called Angelic Conversation (Channel 4). It was Judi Dench reading stray sonnets by Shakespeare in the voice made of coffee and attar of roses that I have liked for years, but here it was an invisible voice. What you saw was the most ridiculous young actor silently expressing sex and anguish. He sat at a window, brandished a light, waded in the sea, carried a big bit of timber as if for crucifixion, and much mist wreathed around him. The sea-noise sounded like bath-water stirred with a teapot, my wife said. Inexpressibly awful modern music rose and fell, some of it apparently by Britten. After the first few moments of horrified incredulity we fell about laugh- ing. Imagine the worst amateur film at the most pretentious students' art festival, and this was worse.

As I recall that baulk of timber, those finely flaring agonising nostrils, and the wreaths and wreaths of studio smoke, I still feel delight. Gosh, it was bad. The poor young actor was like the strayed front legs of a tragic pantomime horse. And all this to obliterate the clearest and most beauti- ful poetry in the English language, which from time to time the music drowned out! You have to hand it to Channel 4, because where such disasters are possible, there is life. The producer was Derek Jarman, and I do not look forward to seeing any more of his work for some time, but this program- me was really, really funny. I did not see quite all of it, because we could not resist the climactic pleasure of turning it off. It made Wozzek seem like drawing-room comedy.

The following evening I approached the television set gingerly. Anyway the grass was lush and the fruit trees blossoming, and the sun streamed in at the window; blackbirds and swallows were nesting in the garden sheds just opposite. It was BBC2 that reported normality, with The Nanking Cargo, about the salvaging of quantities of gold and Chinese painted pottery from an 18th-century wreck. The bigger dishes with the blue fishes were so extremely beautiful that one had to watch. I suppose one ought to complain about the lack of scientific record, but academic art historians have enough toys already in the basements of their museums, and I thought the salvagers deserved every penny of the £10 million they raised at auction. It is thrilling to think of the enormous number of people to whom that china must by now be giving pleasure, and even watching the film made one feel more respectful of human enterprise. The Natural World on animals that change their form, did the same for animal enterprise. Television that holds a mirror up to nature is best. That sonnet programme was out of this world.