Sunday, January 07, 2007


BBC4, 6.1.07

'Rather like watching a train wreck.' Thus London's former man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer on US-UK Iraqi policy in BBC4's Mortgaged to the Yanks, a promising history of Whitehall's post-WW2 financial hock to Washington. Quite apart from the fact that Sir Christopher did precisely, er, nothing to diminish casualties in that ongoing wreck - even resigning might have signalled some antipathetic interest in the matter - Meyer's TV debut was a calamity. Except on this occasion, you weren't a witness to the train wreck - you were in it.

American cultural critic Paul Fussell has said of diplomats - the present writer's experiences echo this - that far from being the suave, educated, string-quartet-playing, worldly people of urban myth and their own vain imaginations, ambassadors and their flunkeys are in fact the shallowest of snobs, old-school-tied into sinecures, monstrously overrewarded, mouthy and bourgeois careerists. Meyer didn't actually shout to camera, over and over again; 'I used to be the UK envoy to America, me' but there was scarcely any need. The fact he'd been given this show (and presumably lots of money) said it all.

With this ghastly missed opportunity of a show the near-insufferable Sir Christopher (as he'd doubtless wish to be known) left none of Fussell's imaginary boxes unticked. The unironic use of a vintage circa-1957 Rolls saloon as his carriage through the show; the pretentious, come-on affectation of chalk-stripe and red socks which made even Denis Healey's unmade-bed chic look stylish; 16 superfluous uses of the first personal pronoun in the opening 30 minutes. Jonathan Meades can bring off hauteur and appearing in every shot; Meyer simply cannot, because he rarely has anything particularly gripping to say, or an interesting way of saying it (think David Dickinson and David Frost on a bad day). Quite a feat when discussing an integral, and unjustly neglected part of postwar British history.

Even GCSE history students will have found it incredible that it took this programme 40 minutes to mention Bretton Woods, the 1944 blueprinting in upstate Massachussetts of the West's postwar rebuilding, perhaps the pivotal moment of postwar geopolitics - and then another five to mention the Marshall Plan, glossed in a trice. You could almost hear history teachers nationwide tearing their hair.

Because we were also treated to digressions of such fantastic fatuity that they must have been included solely to lacquer Meyer's already overshined patina of self-importance.

Consider a dissertation. You want to gauge American reaction to JM Keynes's approach to Washington on behalf of the Attlee government for a postwar loan. Who to approach? A respected historian like Fussell or Studs Terkel? A representative of, or descendent of a representative of the then-incumbent Democratic administration? Or two nutcase muckers from your tenure in Washington who you still want to suck up to?

Obvious, innit? Which must be why Meyer quizzed a brace of hawkish 21st-century Republican top brass (Richard Armitage and Karl Rove) to reflect on an entirely different America 60 years ago, somewhat akin to asking David Blunkett if he prefers Forum or Escort. Worse, it was an excuse for lots of buddy-buddy, 'hey Rich' and 'hey Karl', and the puppyishly uncritical awe with which Meyer hung on the words of these two locker-room dullards (with the oleaginous drool that only the truly professional toady can summon, Meyer described the now-discredited Rove as 'the world's master of political spin') is instructive when reading the PM's attitude towards Washington. Not only lazy and intellectually dishonest, but deeply unsavoury television, which bodes ill for documentary makers everywhere.

Even as television, this was frustratingly thin gruel, as though the embassy was cutting back on the catering at parties with not a Ferrero Rocher in sight; aside of some rarely-seen colour footage of postwar US railways and their beautiful diesel streamliners, the archive stock was pure cliché; maybe the last three people in Britain who haven't seen that Blitz footage can be sent a video. And that footage of busy stevedores and shiny car swellness Stateside; Copland's Fanfare tor the Common Man or that other ELP favourite, Hoedown from Billy The Kid ? The latter won.

Of actual, qualified historians in Mortgaged to the Yanks there was nothing (might have missed a shot of the Rolls, or the suit, or the socks, or Beltway homies). And God save us from mentioning the financial situations of France, Holland, Germany. At least the less we saw (and heard) of Meyer, the better Mortgaged became (for a bit), to remind us of how absorbing and compelling this sort of TV can be. Contributions from Tony Benn, the now extravangantly-toupéed Kenneth Clarke and Healey (still spry at 89 but with wattles like a ploughed beetfiield) offered a flavour as thoroughbred as ripe Stilton.

It didn't last. A terrible passage at the very end led Meyer to a book of remembrance in St Paul's Cathedral in which his own father, a brave missing-in-action USAF pilot, was listed. For openers, this would have been a moving and telling clincher. Instead, it was the uncomfortably-fitting tin lid on a farrago of self-advertisement memorable for its host's emotionally grandstanding conceit rather than the salient geopolitical document it could have been.

If you can't look away from a train wreck, better pretend it never happened. Let us hope British TV producers heed this advice when Sir Christopher comes up with his next proposal.

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