Magazine article The Spectator

Documentary Gems

Magazine article The Spectator

Documentary Gems

Article excerpt

I've been grumpy about BBC drama lately - you'd think they'd wonder why re-runs of the ancient Are You Being Served? do much better than dreary, creaking new constructions such as Harbour Lights - but BBC documentaries get better and better. Take Mata Hari (BBC 2), part of the Reputations series. It was fascinating. I suppose most of us were vaguely aware of who she was - exotic dancer, possible German spy - but I for one didn't know that she included Puccini among her lovers or, even more amazing, that her only son was called Norman. Just think: if he had lived (sadly, he was poisoned by his nanny) he could have grown up to be a Conservative Cabinet minister.

In the modern style of documentary this sort of information is not given much emphasis. The commentary does not froth at the mouth. Instead the information is dropped in, to be discovered glinting like the sixpence in a Christmas pudding. For example, we met a wonderful old British intelligence officer who had greeted Mata Hari when she arrived on the south coast. He referred to her as `Matty Harry', adding, 'I considered her one of the most charming specimens of female humanity I had ever set eyes upon,' so managing to be both gallant and slobbery at the same time.

As a provincial Dutch girl, she had met and married an army officer called MacLeod, so that after her son had died, she had left him, and he had finagled custody of their daughter, she went to Paris to begin her career as an exotic danseuse under the surprising stage name of Lady MacLeod. It doesn't sound right. `Lady MacLeod will bring your passion to fever pitch, and share with you her recipe for mousse of Arbroath smokies' wouldn't really work, at least not if, like her, your dancing was really a come-on for your work as a courtesan, the Belle Epoque equivalent of cards in phone boxes.

This sort of programme demands meticulous research, and the makers appear to have tracked down almost every living person who ever met her, including her granddaughter and various admirers. Their interviews were interleaved with archive film, reconstructions and library shots, none of them the desperate filler material which some historical documentaries are obliged to use. Voice-overs tend these days to be performed by actors rather than reporters, who may be too engaged with their material; the calm tones of someone who only saw the script that morning adds an air of neutrality and nudges the viewer into making his own discoveries. …

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