At eight o’clock yesterday evening, Alan Titchmarsh: Love Your Garden aired on ITV in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish TV broadcast a two-hour live debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow. Billed as an evening that would decide the future of the United Kingdom, the first televised debate ahead of next month’s independence referendum was available only to viewers in Scotland. (The STV live stream, accessible throughout the union, reportedly crashed early on.)
After graduation I’d planned to be a documentary film researcher but instead found myself working, miserably and often late into the evening, as a ticket seller and chair stacker at the Art Film Cinema, a proto pop-up in a basement hall just off Leicester Square. It fell to me to fend off the dirty mac brigade, who had a different idea of what ‘art films’ were: certainly not a succession of worthy shorts, mostly Arts Council funded, on art and artists; and not the main attraction, either – a big screen presentation of Kenneth Clark’s epic TV series Civilisation.
On 23 October 2002, between 40 and 50 Chechen men and women drove in a blacked-out van through the early evening central Moscow traffic, out to a suburb once home to one of the world’s largest ball-bearing factories. They pulled balaclavas over their heads, strapped belts of dynamite across their bodies, and walked briskly into the main entrance of a concrete, brutalist theatre known as Palace of Culture Number 10. The show that evening was a performance of Nord-Ost, a musical set in Stalin’s Russia. It was sold out. The terrorists came on stage during a love aria. They fired into the air. At first many in the audience thought they were part of the play. When they realised they weren’t, there were screams and a charge for the exits. But they were blocked by ‘black widows’ with explosives wired between their bodies and the doors. The men on stage ordered the audience back into their seats: if anyone moved they would be shot. By the time I arrived the next morning, as a fixer for tabloid hacks and documentary crews, the theatre was surrounded by soldiers, medics, TV cameras, cops and onlookers.
We didn’t start watching The Killing in my house until long after everybody else did – at the beginning of this year, I think, when somebody gave us the box set of the first series. By that time I was a bit bored of Sara Lund and her famous jumper – she wears it far too small and clingy, in my view. The trophy knit of the moment should hang from the shoulders, big and square. But I did love the women’s hairdos, mouse-brown and tied back on a good day, left out lank and mournful on the many bad. I couldn’t even tell who was who to begin with, they were all so ordinary in their jeans and parkas, groping through tears and the Danish darkness, nodding and saying hej and tak.
Someone called David von Pein is uploading old documentaries and live TV footage to YouTube – including 'more than 23 hours of television news coverage' from 11 September 2001. The tapes – from ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN – begin at about 8.30 a.m., before the first attack, and run until after the collapse of the second World Trade Center tower.
Auditions started this week for the next series of The X Factor, to be broadcast in the autumn. Yeah well, so what. If you don't like it, don't watch it; who cares if 19.4 million people tuned in for last year's final? But the problem with The X Factor isn’t merely the bland uniformity of the music – that the show is, in Elton John's words, ‘boring and arse-paralysingly brain crippling’ – or even the grotesque parody of the democratic electoral process that it enacts, down to the endless newspaper post-mortems and manufactured outcries over vote-rigging. The X Factor is more than a diversion: it's a glaring symptom of much that's wrong with Britain's political landscape.
I was in Russia when the suicide bomber blew him/herself up in the arrivals hall of Moscow Domodedovo Airport. A rush of worried calls and e-mails jammed my phone (‘I am fine, I was in the Urals when it happened’). One message stands out: ‘The fuckers wrecked our set. Our set!’ In 2008 I produced a television show at the airport for Russian TV. For a year I slept at the airport, I woke at the airport. I know where the smoke alarms are dummies and you can have a crafty fag; when the best light floods through the glass walls to get the best shots; how to cut a deal with the customs guys so they go and buy you duty free whisky. I know which flights bring in which types of passenger. The show was called Hello Goodbye, a remake of a Dutch format. The presenter would walk around the airport and talk to people leaving or meeting each other: emotional families reunited after a generation, lovers parting for ever, lads off for a dirty weekend. It was a microcosm of the new Russia, all the country’s stories under one high-domed roof.
In the latest issue of the LRB, Peter Pomerantsev describes 'the most expensive documentary ever shown on Russian television': Plesen (‘Mould’) argued that mould was taking over the earth, an invisible but omnipresent enemy whose evil spores were invading our lives, causing death and disease. When the film ended large numbers of fearful people went out and bought the ‘mould-cleaning machines’ that had been advertised in the film – its manufacturers had been among the producers. Now you too can watch it (no need to buy a mould-cleaning machine, however):
Britain may have invented the soap opera but nowhere has the format been promoted more vigorously than in Latin America. For decades, telenovelas have been produced in Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and elsewhere, and viewed by hundreds of millions daily from Mexico City to Buenos Aires. Their reach extends to the US and (on a more limited basis) to state-controlled TV in Cuba. Wherever you are in most of the Americas, you can keep up with developments in your favourite soap.
Claire Bloom – Ophelia to Scofield and Burton; Lady Anne to Olivier’s Richard III; the girl handpicked by Chaplin to play his protegée in Limelight, the last of his films to have any shadow of greatness; Lady Marchmain in the original television Brideshead Revisited – is going to appear in an episode of The Bill next week. Whatever you think of Bloom’s acting (she’s always struck me as limited by her self-conscious seriousness; try to imagine her telling a joke), and despite her stints in daytime drama in the US and last year’s cameo as the Doctor’s mother on Dr Who, she will be an incongruous presence on ITV’s long-running, soon-to-be-axed cop opera, with its notoriously plodding scripts and cut-price production values. (A series like The Wire still only shows the way poverty blights imagination; The Bill embodies it.)
If there’s one thing this World Cup has exposed even more cruelly than the emptiness of England’s footballing pretensions, it’s the shallowness of TV punditry. The assumption that ex-stars - and Lee Dixon - can talk as good a game as they once played is one we know well enough to avoid in other fields. Artists do not generally make good critics. ‘I want whatever he’s having,’ Alan Shearer said after the motor-mouthed broadcaster Danny Baker was allowed onto the BBC sofa for a few minutes a couple of weeks ago. Baker had delivered himself of a few jokes, a string of chancy speculations and one very canny observation: ‘England aren’t playing well enough to go out yet.’ England proved him wrong, as it turned out, by going out playing very badly indeed, but that isn't the point: as a pundit, with that comment, Baker had done the business. Shearer, though, is a void, as uninspired as he is uninformed. He has nothing fresh or insightful to say about why England failed so miserably in South Africa. Why should he? As an ex-England captain, he is part of a long-standing institutional problem, not its solution. Which is why, at the end of the game against Germany, his instinct was to get in ahead of the tabloids with the first kick in the traditional blame game – England failed, so the manager must go.
Travel writers have been in high demand this week, and being one, apparently, I was summoned from Cambridge to appear at the back end of Newsnight to discuss the implications for travel of the volcanic ash episode, along with Alain de Botton. I got there an hour early and was shown into a very small, windowless green-room where all but one space on the two sofas was taken up by three large men in suits. Another man sat on an upright chair. Businessmen and politicians are called 'suits', I now see, because that is what is presented to the world. The suit makes the man work. The head emerges and talks as if programmed by the suit-maker. The suit armours their confidence and ownership of reality. Stiffly tailored, uniform, held together with a tie, a substantial watch and an ever-active mobile phone.
Sport is very different when mediated by a television camera. On screen, you lose all sense of a ball's true speed, of the players' astonishing agility. Roger Federer's forehand on TV is still a thing of beauty, but it's something you can (almost) take for granted. Seeing it for real is a useful, if crushing, reminder of how far removed it is from anything you could come up with yourself. On two consecutive nights last week, thanks to some generous colleagues at the newspaper where I work, I went to the ATP World Tour tennis finals at the O2 arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) in Greenwich. The organisers went for maximum American-style razzmatazz. Before the players came out there was a long build-up involving flashing lights, a rousing voiceover, and clips of interviews displayed on giant screens suspended from the ceiling.
It is hard to know what to make of this week’s Question Time. Most of what happened was fairly predictable. Nick Griffin was a rhetorical mess and the other members of the panel (including David Dimbleby) had clearly come well-prepared with damning quotations and facts. If Griffin hoped to advance his cause – as he believed he could – then he failed. But it is questionable whether that matters. Most of his actual and potential supporters are unlikely to watch Question Time and few people who do watch it would be converted, however brilliantly he performed. The BNP draws such strength as it has (and it is not much) from grievances which are not met by arguments from the facts.
Until last week, American fans of 30 Rock, the behind-the-scenes-of-a-TV-comedy-show sitcom, had to make do in 2009 with Tina Fey taking her creamy décolletage on David Letterman and announcing that she was a virgin until the age of 24; a short-lived, thrilling rumour that Alec Baldwin was going to try to steal Joe Lieberman’s Senate seat; and the antics of RealTracyMorgan, who set fire to his Trump Place apartment via a blown-out light in his fish tank and whose Twitter feed started out promisingly enough (‘My dick is so fat it looks like r2d2’) before devolving into work complaints and self-props like everyone else’s.
It turns out the Cold War did not end with either a bang or a whimper in Europe, but with a series of feeble melodies that come invested with the strongest doses of motherland prejudice and rivalry. Those who doubt it have not been paying attention to the Eurovision Song Contest, now in its 54th year, a competition whose chief virtue is to demonstrate the standard failure of political philosophy to rival sequins and bad music as an indicator of the moral outlook of nations. Forget Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, Voltaire, Marx, Lenin or Ortega y Gasset. The world-dominating perspectives of Italy, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia and Spain – to name but six of this year's 42 participating countries – are to be represented by assorted ragamuffins with plentiful false eyelashes and voices as dainty as a fortnight of shelling in Dubrovnik. Every year it gets madder, but 2009, which is being hosted by Russia, must surely be the biggest, campest carnival yet, with nations threatening by the half-hour to storm off or to scratch out the eyes of their neighbours, all in the name of peace, understanding and postwar unification.
I can’t have been the only one who was delighted when Barack Obama outed himself as a Trekkie while on the campaign trail last year, flashing Leonard Nimoy the Vulcan salute and assuring a Wyoming audience that despite his criticism of the bloated Nasa budget, the space programme was important to him: ‘I grew up on Star Trek. I believe in the final frontier,’ he told them. My president's a geek. More than that, Star Trek is a celebration of curiosity and self-improvement – and not a little socialist. Money has been abolished by the 24th century: ‘The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity,’ says Captain Picard. But an old piece in the LRB by Tom Shippey says that I have it wrong.
Outside the main gate of RAF Wittering, on the A1 in Cambridgeshire, just past the funny old sign that says 'Beware: Camp Entrances', is a shiny new sign saying: 'Now Recruiting'. It's there outside RAF Scampton, on the A15 in Lincolnshire, too. And then in a lay-by on the A165 in East Yorkshire there's a big camouflage-green truck with a sign suggesting that if you'd like to drive it, you should think about joining the army. Back in London, on every other phone box (which are surely just glorified advertising billboards these days) I see there's an army recruitment ad, reminding people that doctors and engineers are needed too; it's not all about killing and being killed.