Tuesday, July 14, 2009


The Reign of Television

Today is 25 Messidor, or Bastille Day in the old calendar, and one of the week’s most gripping pieces of TV was Saturday’s part-documentary, part-drama on the Reign of Terror. Spend your evening watching Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution on BBC iPlayer, but have lots of chocolate to hand. Or, if you want a bit of politics but the lessons to learn for today from mass-murdering tyrannies are a bit heavy for a weekday evening, why not explode homeopathy with Mitchell and Webb? Or just have some nourishing Triffids with the Supersizers. I may have mixed two dishes there.
“Men who loved humanity so much, they felt entitled to exterminate the human beings who stood in its way.”
Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution followed Robespierre’s time directing the Committee of Public Safety – and yes, that English translation of the French is very reminiscent of the English translation of the Russian Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or the English translation of whatever the Home Secretary’s coming out with this week about having to sacrifice our liberties, our justice system, huge wads of our cash and the odd few people that we know are baddies for some undefined element of security. Unless the government doesn’t like you, or you don’t pay enough, or there’s a mistake in the system, or all your personal details are accidentally left on a train, in any of which cases you had it coming to you and don’t deserve to feel secure.

As you may have guessed, this programme (available through the week on iPlayer, and repeated tomorrow night at 1.30 am, signed on BBC1) focused on the end of the Eighteenth Century but cast a long shadow, particularly into totalitarians of the Twentieth. Simon Schama was there to be aghast at the moral horror of those who’d sacrifice so many for the sake of “higher truth”; for balance, a communist historian vividly put the case for the Terror. Disturbing, but important – because it’s much easier to ignore people who believe that you can do anything to anyone, as long as things will be fine in the future, “when humanity is perfected,” when they’re safely a couple of hundred years in the past than when they think it’s a good idea to do it to you. I knew a fair bit about the French Revolution (the historical instruction of Doctor Who), but realised watching this that I was mainly familiar with what happened in Paris; accounts of the near-razing of Lyons shocked me. As did the revelation from Robespierre’s private correspondence that even he realised it would never end: the man who almost personified the idea that the ends justify the means told himself and his inner circle of the time when all would be perfect and they could stop. The time will be “never”. Then why did you carry on, you obsessive butcher?!

And, once again, the reason why Liberals don’t believe in utopias is that every individual is important; if you see them only as means to some future perfection, you can discard anyone you like. If you see any system as necessarily imperfect, but doing its best along the way because everyone matters, you realise that the ends and the means are inseparable. It was finding out that Robespierre, the ultimate in starry-eyed fanatics, didn’t even believe the ends were attainable that really appalled. Then what’s it for?

Mitchell and Webb and the Homeopathic Quacks

Fortunately, Mitchell and Webb are on hand, the best in rather a good recent line-up of Thursday night comedy. Yes, I’m quite enjoying Psychoville (though last week’s seemed very like a tribute night to both Alfred Hitchcock and the League of Gentlemen, to the extent that it was mildly surprising to find the corpse wasn’t played by Jeremy Dyson), and even laughed at Krod Mandoon. Last week’s was all right, with a pointed attack on self-styled ‘dieticians’ (“I’m going to go online now and get you another doctorate”), another on Billie Piper’s main post-Who vehicle and an interview with Brian Paddick about police community support officers, but they don’t seem to be spacing out those deliberate “hits” and “misses” as well as they might. The previous week’s outing, the fourth in the series, was far better. I laughed at a deconstruction of online kissing – hmm, doesn’t seem so good when I type it – and celebrity cookery that was almost exactly like my old boss’ way of computer training (a bunch of trainees he’d bludgeoned at high speed once gave me a box of chocolates when I taught them half as much in twice the time but so they could actually learn the skills, because I was “much nicer than that scary man”).

The real highlights, though, were the sketches inspired by last year’s season of Doctor Who – the unfortunate Hennimore (a one-joke series of sketches which I quite enjoy, though they’re not a patch on last year’s bawdy 1970s hospital) facing off against the same giant bee CGI, or not, and a Pompeii soothsayer with a great punchline – and those laying into the credulous on all sides. Trying to lay off the chocolate at the moment, the advert for crisps made out of cress was dead-on:
“Cressps. Once you cressp, you just can’t splesp.”
“…Oh, Christ, they’re horrid!”
Did you see last night’s Supersizers, by the way? The Supersizers Eat… The 1920s seemed to miss the point for the first time, with fabulous music, fabulous lesbians… Really, almost everything about their depiction of the ’20s was fabulous: Sue’s fabulous fringe, fabulous frocks, fabulous fonts, even, but just not much fabulous food. Instead, fads. Far too many diets. I mentioned last week’s on the French Revolution yesterday, which – before the guillotine came down on the cooking – looked far tastier. If I hadn’t already given in to chocolate cravings and crashed out of my diet in spectacular fashion yesterday, I’d have plunged my head into that already empty box of chocs on principle. I wish they’d repeat BBC4’s original Edwardian Supersize Me, in effect the pilot for it all where almost everything bar the pressed duck looked rather enticing, as it’s the only one we didn’t record…

But back to Mitchell and Webb. A very testy vicar trying to pass off an atheist revelation was quite sharp, almost as if irrational one-offs shouldn’t be entirely convincing, but the best of it was undoubtedly the serious, high-energy drama set in Homeopathic A&E. Stephen Fry’s brilliant one-liner slashed homeopathy a couple of weeks ago, but, sorry Stephen, this was even better. And, gosh, who’d have thought treating homeopathy as if it was proper medicine would make it look like an expensive dangerous lunatic absurdity?
“I just can’t stand losing them. I don’t know… Sometimes I think that a trace solution of deadly nightshade or a statistically negligible amount of arsenic just – isn’t enough.”
“That’s crazy talk, Simon. OK, so you kill the odd patient with cancer or heart disease, or bronchitis, flu, chicken pox or measles, but – when someone comes in with a vague sense of unease, or a touch of the nerves, or even just more money than sense, you’ll be there for them with a bottle of basically just water in one hand and a huge invoice in the other.”
Stephen Tall picks out that outstanding sketch, though the whole programme’s still available on the iPlayer until the end of the series. Go for the whole thing, and that one’s also got another round of the post-apocalyptic game show, which I’m afraid I’m finding far too funny. Perhaps I’ve just watched too many horrible dystopian dramas of plague, nuclear armageddon, hideous rampaging giant plants… Some of them even written by people other than Terry Nation.

Triffids, Newfangle and Quack Schools

Speaking of which (and three quick daytime TV links coming up in a rush here), BBC4 is currently repeating perhaps the best of these, The Day of the Triffids, on Sunday nights. Survivors is impressive in each of its incarnations, but I can’t help feeling that it’s lacking something when it omits the poison-slapping killer vegetation and sticks a bit of The Archers into the monsterless void. This 1981 adaptation, easily the best among the various TV, radio and film versions of John Wyndham’s novel, has Triffids which are an extraordinary piece of design: not just scarily plausible rooted, rattling or striking, but even when they’re chopped in half – you see that sort of stringy vegetable breakage you get when you bite a piece of celery. Those strands that get caught in your teeth. How do they do that? And John Duttine was one of the first guys on TV I didn’t admit to myself but knew at several levels was rather hot.

In other news, I discovered an inspired Radio 4 comedy, Newfangle, too late into its run to get round to recommending it, but its prehistoric sit-com covered evolution, war and religion superbly from what I heard of it, and should it be repeated or released on CD, look out for it; it’s stolen by Maureen Lipman and, particularly, the incredibly talented Russell Tovey as the early hominid with all the ideas but not necessarily the wisdom to implement them to his best advantage. With soon-to-disappear Doctor Who website Outpost Gallifrey (current subject of my Summer holiday repeat season) usually known as “OG,” the meaning the series gives to the word “og” is particularly entertaining for Who fans. And so appropriate, as the site is shortly to og off.

And finally, though that poking of the credulous from one end of the human story is no longer available to listen to, you can still read Ministry of Truth’s attack on the ludicrous superstitious rubbish infesting our education system that the Conservative education spokesperson is lauding and that the Labour Government is paying our money towards to inflict on children. Good grief.

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I believe the original 'Committees of Public Safety' were originally set up within the Thirteen American Colonies in revolt against the Crown. Basically they legitimised lynchings of people suspected of loyalty to the King, operating an American 'reign of terror' not much celebrated in US history books. The French translated the title and adapted the function to their (as usual) more centralised tastes.
Not sure where Edis is getting that from. There were "Commitees of Safety" during the American Revolutionary Wars, that acted as provisional governments, and directed the war, but it was hardly a reign of terror.

However, there was a panic about the French terror spreading to the US in the 1790s, hence you got things like the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Anyway, I loved the Robespierre doc. But was it just me, or did it seem like Slavoj Zizek said some pretty bizarre things that would've made more sense if we'd seen what he said next? e.g Like him saying that "If you fear your name is in this book, then you are guilty" contains "great truth" or something.
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