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TV UK, 30 January

Two documentaries on the miners' strike give a window on another age.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Contemporary politics seems to lend itself to television. Whether it’s Tony Blair’s double triumph with the Hutton Report and that vote on whatever it was the night before, or that woman in the jungle with the exploding breasts, stuff happens, flickers on the screen for a while and is forgotten.

It’s easy to forget that history isn’t really like that. Sometimes something happens that changes things forever. There have been two documentaries this week to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the miners’ strike, but the difference between then and now doesn’t seem like something that can be measured in years.

It only came across in flashes, though. Too often, Channel 4’s Strike: When Britain Went to War was like a highbrow version of I Love 1984, with old lefties waxing nostalgic about their student antics. And the ‘dramatic reconstructions’ on BBC2’s The Miners’ Strike fell predictably flat. There’s no point in seeing how things might have looked if you don’t have a sense of what they meant.

The BBC programme’s interviews with miners and policemen were more effective. The way both sides talked so matter-of-factly about their use of violence was particularly jarring: there was none of the trauma that is expected to accompany such stories today. Their experiences had marked them all right, not with emotional scars but with the imprint of a different age, when a job meant something more than a wage, and whatever it meant was considered worth fighting for.

The spirit of our own age was perhaps distilled in the Channel 4 drama Comfortably Numb on Sunday night. This was set in the Promis recovery centre, and – also characteristic of the times – most of the cast were ‘real-life’ addicts and counsellors. The very first scene seemed to mark this out as a ‘serious drama’ with a full frontal shot of a naked woman putting her pants on (putting them on, mind – there’s classy), but by the end it seemed like little more than an advert for Promis and its Twelve Step philosophy.

It was billed as a love story, and it actually seemed quite promising when the two central characters got together in defiance of the clinic’s rule against exclusive relationships. There was also something appealing about the fact that these two were ‘real’ actors, weaving their own story into this odd exercise in therapeutic drama. In the end, though, they fell into line and realised that it isn’t fair to use someone else as a ‘tablet’. Who said romance is dead?

Anyone who stumbled on the secret screening of NYPD Blue last Thursday will know that Sipowicz almost fell off the wagon, only to be rescued by McDowell, a rather buxom tablet. It’s a mystery to me why Channel 4 has decided to screen the new season of the first-class cop show after midnight on Thursday nights, and with no advertising that I’ve been able to detect. It’s been a long time coming too: last week’s opening episode was set in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center.

That, and the discovery of the murdered Sorensen’s body, had the squad in fierce form in the interrogation room, and accounted for Sipowicz’s close shave at the bar. Other than that, life seems to be going on pretty much as before, but with considerably more satisfying drama than is to be found either in Parliament or in the jungle.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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