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A teeny pain in the neck

Posted 02/12/99

Sunday Times (London)
By AA Gill


In an amazing rant going from thier distaste of the show Naked in Westminister (and Sky One in particular) and then segueng into Buffy: Vampire Slayer (BBC2), the reviewer takes a moment from the reviling to make this comment: "Unfortunately, in practice, I have to hold my hand up and say, seeing as I don't like sport and we won't count movies, there is barely anything I can recommend. Oh, except Xena - Warrior Princess, the greatest lesbian icon of our century."


    'Naked in Westminster is set to become essential viewing and takes the
docu-soap to a new level of voyeurism." That's from a gasping, spittle-flecked
press release Sky sweetly sent me, along with a tape of their essential viewing.

    Naked in Westminster goes out on Sky One on Sunday at 10pm. And if you do
find yourself at a loose end of a Sunday evening, then I suggest you descale the
kettle or organise your socks chromatically. Whatever you do, don't go anywhere
near this programme. Nothing, not inventing a new asymmetrical way to lace your
shoes, nor card ing navel lint, could be as pointless as watching Naked in
Westminster. I have seen it on your behalf and, believe me, you don't want to go
there. The new levels of voyeurism it plumbs are a grimacing embarrassment. It
means watching a piece of television that will haunt its perpetrators like a
stinking dead albatross hanging off their CVs for ever. The characters on screen
are stygian dross, but the unseen hands behind the camera are of an altogether
more remedial hopelessness.

    All art forms suffer from a fair degree of product that is made with a
talentless cyn-icism. The ratio goes something like this. "The very best we
could do": 5%. "About as good as we could manage given the circumstances": 70%.
"Do you think we can get away with this?": 25%.  

    Naked in Westminster falls into the bottom per cent of the latter. It's an
exhausting look at a sad bald man with a ponytail who wants to set up a
lapdancing club, and it's like concentrated insomnia. If anyone finds it even
teasingly priapic then, buddy, I'm sorry, you suffer from a sexual perversion
that is utterly unique and unknown to even Dr Ruth.

    Normally I wouldn't mention it - there is plenty of television that needs a
spanking for soundly professional reasons without bothering to get into the ring
with this sort of decrepit, halfwitted dumb show. But at the end of 1998 I said
we should spread the critical net and write more about satellite television,
what with digital and terrestrial channels spreading out. The audience was
undoubtedly going to grow. It was the way television was going. In principle,
I'm all for digital television. The more TV the better. In fact, I'm one of the
small minority of proselytisers. Unfortunately, in practice, I have to hold my
hand up and say, seeing as I don't like sport and we won't count movies, there
is barely anything I can recommend. Oh, except Xena - Warrior Princess, the
greatest lesbian icon of our century. Whenever I get into my rant about bright
dawns, far horizons and a 21st-century awash with choice, someone always spoils
it by saying: "But have you watched Sky One recently?" And I have to shut up and
mutter: "Well, not if I can help it." That's not the point. But, in fact, it
jolly well is the point.

    Consider Sunday's primetime line-up on Sky One - and remember, this is the
one evening of the week when you are likely to find the whole family in watching
television. And it's also when the old terrestrial channels bring out their big
series and Sunday-best productions. So you can be enticed with: Third Rock From
the Sun, Earth: Final Conflict, Ultraviolet, and then round off your evening
with Naked in Westminster. Now that's desperate, that's truly pathetic. And
what's more, this is at a time when Sky is actively trying to entice customers
to buy new dishes and televisions. For what? To watch tired American sitcoms and
repeats. "Please sign up for our service, but don't bother switching on for a
couple of years until we get the contents sorted out." What Channel 5 proved,
and I'm afraid Sky One is continuing to indulge, is that if you ape the lowest
common denominator for instant ratings, you get the worst of all worlds:
second-hand, flaccid trash and no viewers.

    Finally, re Naked in Westminster. Now that the air is sordidly fetid with
limp docu-porn, how is it, why is it, that nobody has made a single programme or
even a segment of a programme that implies that sex might be in the remotest bit
fun? It's not the English obsession with sex that continues to astound, it's our
po-faced obsession with miserable sex.

    Which brings me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Wednesday, BBC2), a series
that's simply gagging for a bit of exploitative sex. The word is that Buffy has
been hanging around the BBC for some time and nobody has been quite sure where
to put her. "Excuse me, Tristram, but have you got a moment? We've got this
American schoolgirl who's the vampire slayer - you know, the one born every
generation to staple the undead. Any ideas?" "Well, what about five o'clock on
Wednesday? Doesn't sound any worse than Grange Hill." "Ah well, there's a
problem. She's friends with the unspeakably creepy lothario from the first Gold
Blend ads." "Oh, my God, that is disgusting - blood and instant coffee."

    Buffy, I'm informed, has been chopped about a bit by the Van Helsings at the
Beeb to fit in with prepubescent viewing guidelines. Still, she looks set to
become something of a cult. But doctor, I'm not entirely convinced. On the face
of it, Buffy is the ponytail and mini-kilt version of The X Files, mercifully
with its tongue and fangs firmly in its cheek. The rhythms of American
high-school slang are as moreish and attractive as Damon Runyon's Broadway Guys
and Dolls. She is also reminiscent of The Addams Family, one of my all-time
favourite comedies.

    The problem, my problem, lies with the gothic Victorian origins of the
vampire genre. Dracula and his clan are all metaphors for sex, specifically
virginal girls' yearnings and their consequent sense of guilt. All the things
that Rentokil's bloodsuckers are associated with: moral probity, crosses, holy
water, the light of day and simple wooden stakes echoing the holy rood. Also,
vampires have no reflections: being able to look yourself in the face is a sign
of purity and innocence. And, of course, if you're bitten you don't die, you
become one of them. Being unable to die is the final punishment, being excluded
from God's heaven.

    Vampires are high-cholesterol symbolism, and a high school should be a
perfect modern environment for the old myth to rise again. But Buffy gets coy
about the true gothic sensuality and darkness that is the implicit nature of
bloodsucking. What we are given is a Michael Jackson video cut with Ferris
Bueller's Day Off, with added garlic. This is Pacific Rim Bram Stoker. It's
Dracula written by Charlotte Bronte. It's plasma lite. Crosses are just another
bit of Friday-night jewellery, holy water comes still or carbonated, stakes are
broken furniture and sex is a hygiene problem. That said, Buffy and the rest of
the cast are remorselessly easy on the eye. This is a high school where even the
plain girls look like models for Victoria's Secret. And they're all
remorselessly Anglo-white. If I were writing a communications studies thesis on
Buffy (please don't try this at home), I might go so far as to say the allegory
of vampirism has been subtly shifted from sex to outsiders. The monsters have
the look of the underclass, the leather-jacketed, dangerous drifting denizens of
street corners and recreation areas, the gangs of lost youth that prey on
middle-class America.

    Buffy's school is an embattled fortress of learning and the old Eisenhower
American way of life, full of beautiful, clean, rich middle-American kids. It
doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to see that this is how a lot of
Americans view their current predicament, and there's no doubt where the real
power lies. Prewedlock humping isn't the fate worse than death that keeps
American mothers awake worrying about their daughters. It's crack and gun
control and the waves of ethnic visigoths that are taking over the heart of
American cities, sucking the blood right out of the nation.

    And it's no great stretch of the imagination to set Buffy in the long line
of separatist white xenophobia that is a continuing riff in American films and
television. In fact, she has a lot more in common with John Wayne than she does
with Peter Cushing. And she looks better than both in a miniskirt. If I were
composing a redbrick seminar, I could say all that. But I'm not, so I won't.

    With a swirl of my cape and a puff of smoke we go from blood on your collar
to Blood on the Carpet (Wednesday, BBC2), a new documentary strand that began a
fortnight ago with an investigation into Granada's takeover of Forte. It got
serious interviews with all the participants and built up a solid episodic
picture of a giant gladiatorial struggle. It was complex and riveting, mixing
the nuts and bolts with telling personal detail.

    Business and commerce are full of wonderful stories, but they are rarely
attempted by television because they are perceived to be difficult and cold and
grey, and they are fundamentally not what the people who make television got
into television to make. They would rather make youth TV with pop stars and hide
cameras in prostitutes' headboards. Halfway through the first programme I
thought, this is well made, and I couldn't quite place why. And then it came to
me. It's really very old-fashioned, the editing is tight and unobtrusive, the
camera is there to show you what needs to be seen, not as aerobics for the
operator, and the story was driven by proper journalism. It had no side, no
agenda and no predetermined atmosphere. Lord, it was a relief. Nobody was being
stitched up, and you didn't have to turn down the sound to drown out the axes
being ground.

    The second episode was equally good and also very funny, dissecting the
battle between Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs for supremacy in the American ice
cream market. Ben & Jerry, the Furry Freak Brothers of pudding, took on the
Pilsbury Doughboy. The two boardroom hippies were just too Woodstock to be true,
and so it turned out. With a terrific twist in the tale, we were shown the two
wacky underdogs now turned into Cheech & Chong meets Gordon Gekko, trying to
bully a small competitor out of the market. Now, I know neither of these two
stories sounds terribly winning on paper, but do watch the rest of this
fastidiously professional series. Just when you thought the word "documentary"
had been irredeemably trashed by fly-on-the-fly porn and clever-clever glossy
sneering, Blood on the Carpet shows how it can be done.

    Finally, just to be completely even-handed about digital...The other company
trying to sell you new bits of kit to join into the bright, all-singing fest of
future fun, Carlton, has just spent Pounds 90m on a few tired films and Lew
Grade's ATV library. So before you go down to Dixons and fork out for the box,
just consider how much you really want to see sepulchral repeats of Dangerman,
The Saint and Thunderbirds. They could have made a lot of television for Pounds
90m. A lot of Jewel in the Crown, a lot of This Life, a lot of World in Action
and Civilisation. But, hey, you can get puppets instead. And what do they care?

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