Review: Melvyn Bragg, Witnesses, Britain at the Bookies

I came to Melvyn Bragg’s life story Wigton to Westminster a fan and left it a disciple. The man, it showed, contains multitudes. Not content with popularising art and culture for the masses over 50 years, he has also conducted a lifelong experiment exploring the possibilities of hair pomade. And yet in spite of such achievements, he is not above getting so angry about traffic jams he can drop a double F-bomb. Human and superhuman, all at once.

Mocking Melvyn, of course, has been frightfully good sport almost since he became famous – Spitting Image used to go out just before The South Bank Show on ITV and it regularly used to sign off with a joke at the expense of the man who sounded like he had a lifelong sniffly cold. Yet The South Bank Show still endures while Spitting Image has long departed, suggesting that it is Lord Bragg who has had the last laugh. That was one of the most notable things about Bragg in this biographical film: he spends a great deal of time laughing uproariously at himself.

The challenge for director Olivia Lichtenstein was to make sure that this didn’t become too much of a love-in. Bragg, the consummate broadcaster, could easily have taken control of this film about himself and thus revealed nothing. Instead, Lichtenstein’s film managed to be both kind-hearted and yet steely-eyed, paying homage to the great man while not avoiding tough questions about the suicide of his first wife, an event Bragg admitted has haunted him ever since.

For non Bragg-o-philes, Wigton to Westminster worked on other levels: Bragg got in to broadcasting in the 50s via the BBC trainee scheme, the finishing school of a now defunct system that enabled a Cumbrian grammar school boy, via a scholarship to Oxford, to waltz straight in to the cradle of the establishment. From there, Bragg was able to insinuate popular culture in to arts programme at a time when popular culture wasn’t considered culture at all.

In other words, Bragg was born of a television age that he then helped shape. It is an age that is now over, but looking back on Bragg’s rise tells us a crucial thing about modern broadcasting. When Bragg went in to television, it was a place where you could get things wrong and still prosper. The all-hallowed South Bank Show, the film reminded us, bombed when it was launched, and Bragg’s decision to turn it in to a series of single films was a major gamble. But he was allowed to take that decision – empowered we’d call it now – on his own. In modern broadcasting death by a thousand committees would never have let one man make that call. Huw Wheldon, Bragg’s mentor on Monitor, the original TV arts show, talked often about ‘the right to fail.’ I suspect broadcasting is simply too big an industry these days for failure to be an option, but a little failure, this film suggested, goes a long way.

If the abiding feeling from watching Bragg and his life was uplifting – a success story about someone who’s actually deserved it, for once – then Britain at the Bookies was deeply depressing. It made you like neither Britain, nor the Bookies.

That’s not because it was a bad programme. It was yet another of those access-all-areas films arranged via corporate PR departments which seem to be taking over documentary films as a genre entirely and about which I wrote the other week. This time the corporation was Coral the bookmakers, and we did indeed get to see what appeared to be an unexpurgated portrait of the company from the high street right up to their London HQ.

No, the problem was what Britain at the Bookies had to say about gambling, bookmakers and, by extension, humanity as a whole. The film made it abundantly clear that Coral, like all bookmakers, make money from a habit that is somewhere between mass delusion and hopeless addiction. Like all bookmakers they rely on people repeatedly playing a game that they know they cannot win. The ultimate self-defeating exercise is marketed as just a bit of fun. But the cast of sorry souls on display in Britain at the Bookies weren’t having any fun. And neither was I, watching them get mugged, repeatedly.

So I turned to Witnesses, a French police drama about someone who’d been digging up corpses and leaving them in showhomes, to make me feel better. Witnesses is the latest chapter in our broadcasters’ gold rush to buy up foreign drama in the fear that if they don’t, someone else will snaffle the next The Killing. The foreign language genie is now out of the bottle, however: every country is scouring the globe for the prime televisual cuts of every other. This – effectively the globalisation of TV drama – is beginning to have an unfortunate effect: it has led to a homogenisation of ideas.

Witnesses, for example, featured an OCD female lead (The Killing, The Bridge) in a strange seaside town (Broadchurch) working with a limping older detective (The Missing) whose thousand yard stare signals a troubled past (every police drama ever made, especially if starring Amanda Burton). Its palette was fifty shades of mizzling grey (Scandi drama in general). The theme tune used breathy bilingual vocals, the lift muzak of foreign thrillers. In fact Witnesses’ only truly surprising turn appears to be a subplot about a wolf, and I can’t see that ending well, unless it marks the resurrection of Manimal.

The reason we embraced foreign drama in the first place, of course, was because it was different. Had Witnesses made it to Channel 4 in 2005 it would have been the only show anyone was talking about. But a decade on, and in part thanks to the Internet, we are all aware of every new foreign show. Anything worse than really quite spectacular just ain’t going to make the must list.

Published by Benji

Writer, Journalist, Critic

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