Magazine article The Spectator

Gripping Gossip

Magazine article The Spectator

Gripping Gossip

Article excerpt

Years ago That Was The Week, or one of its successors, satirised television's obsession with matching a visual image to every spoken word. A mention of the Lord Privy Seal was illustrated in quick succession by a chap in ermine, an outside lavatory, and a seal playing motor horns. Even today it's part of television demotic. `It's a bit lord privy seal' means too many fusspotty pictures.

Alan Clark's History of the Tory Party contains quite a lot of LPS. Any reference to traditional values seems likely to be illustrated by a country cricket match, filmed through a sepia filter. Our crumbling Empire is designated by a Union Jack-festooned sandcastle washed away by the tide. We can tell that the Profumo affair, covered this coming weekend, is about vice because there are neon signs in Soho reading `Girls, Girls, Girls'.

Nevertheless, these days producers are less afraid of talking heads and have a new terror instead. If the heads doing the talking aren't in a succession of colourful places, then we will get bored and switch off. So presenters are whisked hither and yon to exotic locales, not because the setting makes an illuminating point, nor because their words will be made easier to understand -- quite the contrary, since by distracting the viewer, the lavish backgrounds are likely to do the opposite.

Clark is the victim of this anxiety. He charges about the country as if on some demented toffs' Saga Tour. Chatsworth! The Carlton Club! The White Cliffs of Dover! The Dorchester! If this is Tuesday, it must be Saltwood! In each, he is doing a piece to camera: here fondling the back of an antique sofa, there climbing a curved staircase, occasionally relaxing by the seaside, or leaning languidly against a Spitfire.

It's dizzying, and must have created huge logistical problems. I know from doing shorter series that filming a PTC which will still look appropriate in the finished programme, in the correct location, is difficult enough if you're doing only two or three in an hour. Managing the same trick with dozens in the show must have taken an astonishing amount of planning. It shows - and occasionally creaks.

Which is a great shame, because apart from the wonderful old newsreel footage (`Down the bright, straight road to a new understanding in Europe!' said Pathe of the Munich agreement; I suppose our parents were more used to being told what to think by bossy middle-class voices) what the show really needs is nothing more than Alan Clark talking. …

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