30 JUNE 2001, Page 54

Brilliant but horrifying

Simon Hoggart

ve said before how annoying I find the phrase 'I'm afraid I never watch television', generally said with a smug little smile which implies that the speaker spends the rest of the time finishing Proust, or writing their own novel, or making exciting modern pewterware which sells for £5,000 a plate, or teaching their children Sanskrit, while you know perfectly well that they watch the news, The Simpsons, the feature films, the David Attenboroug,h wildlife, Frasier, Wimbledon, and in fact have the set in the corner on almost all the time.

The correct response is to say something along these lines: 'In that case you'll have missed Dispatches: Beneath The Veil (Channel 4), one of the most brilliant and horrifying documentaries I've ever seen. There is no other medium which could have communicated the terror and despair of life under the Taleban in Afghanistan. It had to have pictures, but photographs could not capture the extent of the madness, the way that it swirls round and engulfs the lives of everybody living under the tyranny. Nobody would go to a cinema to see it, and in any case the story needed the shocking immediacy which comes from it being

pushed into your own front room.' (By this time, your friend has indicated that he or she must dash, since they have to be at the hanging of their latest work at the RA, or go to their polo coaching.) Beneath The Veil was full of horrible images — wobbly, amateurish footage taken by incredibly brave people, including the reporter, Saira Shah, an Englishwoman whose father was from Afghanistan. Three women, allegedly adulterers, were paraded round a packed football stadium in their veils so they couldn't even see their tormentors, before being forced to kneel down on the penalty spot and shot through the head. For me the most poignant scene was the secret film of a mother mashing stale mouldy bread with water to make a pulp which served as her children's only food. (Women are banned from work, so the ramshackle economy has simply imploded.) Yet perhaps the most sickening single moment was provided by the government minister who was asked why a football stadium, paid for by the international community, was being used for public executions. Because, he replied, like a football match, a public execution was a joyful occasion, at least for the victim of the crime. If the international community felt so strongly, he asked, why didn't they pay for a public execution stadium as well?

It was a useful reminder that there are even greater enemies of freedom than Shell and Starbucks, Esso or McDonalds. Many of the anti-globalisation protesters have a sentimental view that, left to themselves, small communities would lead innocent, arcadian, self-reliant lives, freed from the demands and obligations imposed by greedy multi-nationals. Some might. Others would turn into Afghanistan. Thank goodness television exists to tell us.

As a young man I was sometimes sent to cover Manchester United matches for the Guardian. Even then I wasn't much of a football fan, but United offered the hacks a spectacular tea after the match, including salmon sandwiches and cream horns, plus a free bar. And you got to. see George Best. In the strangulated prose I wrote at the time in my efforts to become the new Neville Cardus, I once said that the ball seemed to play around his feet like a loyal puppy. I was reminded of this watching George Best's Body (Channel 4). He was an athlete of quite astonishing gifts, and his alcoholism is like leukaemia, a dreadful, destructive, wasting disease from which there seems to be no cure. Best came over, as he always does when sober, as a decent, cheerful, intelligent and even reflective man. His illness is just an awful accident.

I suppose I enjoyed The Gentleman Thief (BBC I), though less than I would if I hadn't read the Raffles books. There is a curious device used in fashionable scriptwriting. Just as some directors set Shakespeare in modern settings — an abbatoir, a trading floor — but keep the original words, so television tends to do the opposite. The world of the original, the costumes, streets, salons, etc, are recreated in perfect detail. Only the dialogue is modernised. 'Do I think of a pithy retort or do I just smack you in the mouth?'; 'You posh girls like a bit of rough'; 'It's tough out there in the real world', and so on. It doesn't make the script seem up to date, because the men wear toppers and the cabs are pulled by horses. It's distracting and silly.

Raffles's friend Bunny was replaced by a loveable hooligan, presumably on the grounds that Hornung's idea was just too, too wildly camp. But that's the whole point: you create the past in so many different ways, through words, clothes, and through the fact that two chaps like that could be close friends without anyone finding it remotely odd.