Gay Times Reviews XXX

Soap Weekend: Life After Soap C4
Soap Weekend: Soap Fiction C4
The End Of Innocence BBC1
The Beatles Anthology LWT
Burt Bacharach... This is Now BBC2
Inside Story Special: Inside 25 Cromwell Street BBC1
Up Radio 4

There is a theory that more people die in February than any other month. In my more cynical moments, I wonder if it could be because of the winter TV schedules. After the initial excitement of wondering whether the Beeb will show The Sound Of Music or The Wizard of Oz has ebbed, the situation slips into a dizzying decline. Those halcyon memories of the end-of-year rush to entertain you pale quickly, and that’s no different for the actors than it is for the viewer at home. During the recent Soap Weekend (Ch4) a few faces from the dim and murky past popped on screen for a brief update with Life After Soap. Rod “The Plod” Corkhill from Brookside was hunted down and found snipping barnets in a hairdressers owned by his parents. He - slightly jowled and far less spotty - instantly bemoaned the fact that he “should have tried harder” during his seven-year stint. Jill Chance from Crossroads was interrupted as she prepared for panto (the greatest tribute ever bestowed on any soap actor, surely) and Alan Bradley from Coronation Street was caught shopping for Smash™ and sorrowfully decrying that he hasn’t landed a single role since he was crushed beneath that rumbling tram. Life After Soap had an almost funereal tenor.

In between the clips, there was a roll call of the dead characters, read out in an impassive voice. Shame though that only three were featured but a number of names rang an alarming bell of concern in my soap-addled mind. I wracked my brain to work out whatever happened so many of our finest thespians. But really, who cares? Even if these has-beens don’t get to open a new branch of Netto every week, there are plenty of established hamfatters who will. Channel 4 crossed the fence for a back stage gaze at some of the people on Brookside and EastEnders who would gladly sever a ribbon for a couple of grand.

Trying to trace the route of reality to soapy drama Soap Fiction (narrated by Anna Friel) sat in on storyline conferences, interviewed the drama queens and provided a plethora of clips. One writer claimed that “You can find every story in your local newspaper.” Not in the Hackney Gazette you can’t: there are fewer tragedies and traumas in the entire borough than there are in the Close or the Square. But whichever way you stare at it, soaps are a slice of life. A parade of pineapple heads, traffic wardens, cabbies, Rasta mechanics, binmen and wrinklies passed by proving the adage that “The viewers take it all literally.” Soaps might be voyeuristic and equally as nostalgic but the writers all asserted their responsibility to be a truthful as possible. “People say it’s dull and gloomy,” a second writer mused, “but they don’t switch off.” Yes, but this programme didn’t tell any soap addict anything they wouldn’t have known, and the fly on the dressing room wall is hardly a fresh concept.

The format of The End Of Innocence (BBC1) seemed a tad abstract as well, lacking a certain element of cohesive thought and chronological accuracy. The colossal issues around HIV and AIDS over the last 15 years were almost trivialised and the producers seemed to forget what the purpose of the programme, screened to coincide with World AIDS Day, actually could have been. It touched on the “Don’t Die Of Ignorance” campaign and wildly scampered past Thatcher, Anderton and Ray Cornes, before concentrating on the the reaction of a rugby XI to two men kissing (“revulsion”, “disgust” and “fright”), veering past the effect of Section 28, condoms for prisoners and the Age of Consent, and finally resting on the BBC’s Two Of A Kind. In between, there were a few good quotes, an embarrassing question or two, a heap of figures and manifold tales of an incompetent Government. If anything, the fear of AIDS was presented solely as the fear of homosexual men and the odd bit of baiting over the re-gaying of the disease. The whole picture was jolted and I feel it did Simon Garfield’s book a great disservice by trying to cram an extensive thesis into 50 minutes.

And speaking of the hackneyed rewriting of history, how about The Beatles Anthology (LWT)? As a life-long fan of the Fab Four and something of a John Lennon zealot, I must say I was disappointed. Frequently during the six-hours I had to remind myself quite firmly that this was “the definitive version”. After all, the producer had spent four years interviewing “everyone” who’d had a part to play, and had gathered together truckloads of clips, home videos and performances. Of course he had to do without John (despite the fact that dear Yoko sold the rights for his “image” to be used) and that gave it an uneven keel. Macca was quite happy to ignore the fiasco of The Magical Mystery Tour and refused to acknowledge his part in the downfall of the Beatles while Ringo and George seemed quite propitious with their recollections.

I was constantly on the edge of my seat, waiting for the moment when Paul would be caught out, but as the weeks went by, his image of sainted songwriter and jolly chappy was continually touted. Blame was hastily laid at Yoko’s feet, but the actual chain of events was never fully explored. In fact, that was the major discrepancy in the whole project. Two-thirds of the way through this incomplete and rose-tinted vision came a press release in which Paul admitted that The Beatles Anthology didn’t pull all the punches it could have, and someone else may have to start from scratch. Now, I’d cancelled dinner with friends, ignored the cinema and clubland, forgone warm nights in front of my girlie’s fire to watch this in my frozen, waterlogged flat, so I felt thoroughly conned. Although the live performances and the “ground-breaking videos” made for idyllic moments of viewing, I still came away with the distinct feeling that The Compleat Beatles is a far better, far worthier chronicle. And until there is a warts and all version, I’ll stick to plucking out “Love Me Do” on my tennis racket strings with a tuppence bit.

The producers should have taken heed when watching Burt Bacharach... This Is Now (BBC2). Narrated by the legendary Dusty Springfield, the first ever biopic of “the world’s most popular writer since Gershwin” was an absolute pleasure. It guided the viewer gently from early compositions (“Twiggy Twiggy” as performed by Les Pizzicato) through bouffant hair, glitter and frilly dress shirts to sitar remixes and Oasis’ blatant rip-offs to Tin Tin Out’s techno version of “Always (Something There To Remind Me)”. Fevered it was not: rather it slid along at a languid pace, leaving most of the personal morsels untasted, and revelling in his glorious musical talent. A scrubbed Dionne Warwick (who has a little more trouble hitting the notes now) rehearsed with Burt who was resplendent in cream slacks and a white jumper. Cilla was shown throwing a rare but pithy temper tantrum after 28 takes of “Anyone Who Had A Heart” while Dusty swanned about a set made out of huge toilet rolls. Amidst the sound bites from Carole Bayer Sager, Richard Carpenter, Hal David and that hairy geezer from Oasis, and footage of Burt’s tour with Marlene, the show was packed with ravishing tunes and cheesy videos from the 1970s. Lovely, wonderful, marvellous.

I honestly cannot say the same of Inside Story Special: Inside 25 Cromwell Street (BBC1). Interesting and morbidly fascinating yes, but certainly not marvellous. The “explicit account of isolation” of Stephen and Mae, the eldest children of Fred and Rosemary West, started with their assertion that their mother was innocent. They then proceeded to recount a litany of awful consequences. The programme edited out any questions that were asked, rendering the viewer helpless in the face of a tirade of information concerning what has been described as the “pure evil” of their parents. You want details? Let’s get them out of the way. The children were given toys from rubbish tips and had to row across their bedroom in a toy box because of regular floods in the cellar, caused by a pipe broken when Fred buried one of his victims. Stephen was forced to steal bikes, watch blue movies and view a photo album of male genitalia. The girls stood guard for each other when showering, and had to contend with Fred West’s insistent threat that “all fathers break their daughters in.”

Fred West placed microphones in each room, listening to the conversations on an ear piece at night, and wired a video cameras into wardrobes. They were not allowed to have locks on their bedroom doors. Stephen was once tied by wire to the toilet and beaten by Rosemary, who then sent him back to school, bruised and bleeding. Fred menaced Stephen by saying he would be “given” to Rosemary when he turned 16. Stephen or Mae could not recollect any affection being shown to them and didn’t know if they had been treated anymore severely than any other children because they had no comparison.

It might not sound as bad as you’d imagine, but you can bet the children weren’t telling the whole story. They didn’t contradict each other, and recounted these experiences in a lazy, lilting brogue that belied everything they described. The programme seemed deliberately muted, and the children (who were hardly refered to as adults) came across as lucid, fluent and unrehearsed. Until the powers that be allow West’s own journals and police tapes to be transcribed and published, this is the only insight we’ll probably ever have. Allowing the offspring a chance to tell their side is deemed acceptable because they are the victims, but there are many victims who remain unrepresented because West took his secrets to the grave in a cowardly fashion.

I feel it is reprehensible that we will never know the true extent of this man’s nefarious nature. Not because of ghoulish voyeurism or out of a misplaced condonment but because without it, we cannot hope to learn a single lesson to help others who (so Stephen attested on This Morning the following day) are even now experiencing a similar horror. Possibly the producers, in their haste to capitalise on Stephen and Mae West’s co-operation, forgot that a lack of true knowledge is no aid, no more so than a blinkered view of events.

Now for a gentler art form - the wireless. The strength of radio has always been in dramatic plays. I made mention last month of Making Up (Radio 4) by David Goodland, which warranted two broadcasts within three months. Set against the backdrop of a gay club in Britsol called (with an apparent lack of originality) The Old Queen, it revolves around the regular drag queen Darcy White (Ronald Pickup). He started the play on a downward curve, his act a tad prosaic. As always happens in the best fairyland tradition, two events collided in one evening to alter his destiny. An old stage partner (John Duttine) popped up and Darcy is told his was to be replaced by - horror of horrors - a karaoke machine. With the help of his manager and his Mum, Darcy attempted to resolve his past and improve his future. And in the best tradition of radio plays, comedic timing and dramatic licence were all employed to make Goodland’s play one of the most charming and novel I’ve heard in some time.

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