Flattered by Hitler
Wallis Simpson: the Demonised Duchess - C4, Monday
Adultery or Therapy? - UTV, Wednesday
The Secret Life of the Family - BBC1, Wednesday
The Syndicate - BBC1, Monday
Flatmates - C4, Wednesday
You've got to admire a programme which sets out to show the good side of someone as thoroughly dislikeable as the former Duchess of Windsor. In a summer in which the British media is going all watery-eyed over its handsome young prince and its 100-year-old Queen Mum, Wallis Simpson: the Demonised Duchess aimed to retrieve the long-lost reputation of a woman who has been accused of everything from hermaphroditism to fascism. As it happens, it failed - though it threw up some interesting questions along the way.
Wallis was born into a high-society Baltimore family, the Warfields, in 1896. Like her future in-laws, the Windsors, the Warfields had an unwarrantedly high opinion of themselves. "It was a privilege to grow up a Warfield," said one contemporary scion of the clan, without any apparent irony. But Wallis, the product of a shotgun marriage whose father died when she was just a few months old, was always treated with disdain by her uncles and cousins.
The story of her early years had a certain pathos, and the teenage Wallis came out of it as a bit of a rebel: "It was my private judgment that whenever I was being good I had a very bad time, and vice versa," she said in her memoirs. Marriage at a very young age to an abusive, drunken naval officer, followed by a series of affairs, confirmed her early belief that, for a woman to get anywhere, she needed a powerful man.
The Demonised Duchess implicitly suggested that it was this milieu of patriarchal, provincial snobbery, family rejection and genteel poverty that made Wallis the woman she was. It also set out to scotch some of the more colourful rumours about her. Her biographer rejected speculation that Wallis's birth was not properly registered because of unusual genital formations which caused confusion over her gender. It was only one of several calumnies which this gentleman was on hand to rebut, although he ended up protesting a little too much. Some of the stories, though - particularly the one about Wallis enslaving the future king of England with "special sexual techniques" she had learned in a Shanghai brothel - have a wonderful whiff of the 1930s about them. You can just imagine the MI5 types in their gentlemen's clubs pronouncing: "The things that gal can do with her muscles!".
Rather than perfecting her muscle techniques during her time in China in the early 1920s, the programme suggested she was actually running secret and highly dangerous errands for the US government across a country in the grip of civil war. In fact, there seemed to be as little evidence of this as of the Shanghai brothel story (a mysterious "Shanghai dossier" allegedly compiled by British intelligence has, not surprisingly, never surfaced).
This was the problem with a programme which took a diametrically opposite approach from, say, the BBC's Reputations series in its heyday. Whenever possible, The Demonised Duchess tried to show its subject's actions in a positive light, mostly through the testimony of a bunch of ancient old cronies and lackeys. The Duke himself came across as the best argument for republicanism ever made - a self-obsessed, spoilt twit who made Bertie Wooster look like a weighty intellectual. The programme argued persuasively that Wallis never wanted the abdication, and would have been quite happy to remain in the time-honoured role of royal mistress, but Edward was having none of it. "A weak man who relished the contempt and bullying," visited on him by his wife as part of their sado-masochistic sexual relationship, it's easy to see how he might have submitted equally easily to Hitler.
The programme was least impressive and most evasive on this, the most controversial and crucial part of its story. After the abdication, the couple visited Germany in 1937 "to look at improvements in workers' housing conditions", and Wallis was flattered when Hitler told her she would make an excellent queen. But the ensuing flirtation with Nazism was unforgiveably glossed over by the programme-makers. Fascist sympathies were commonplace among the British aristocracy in the 1930s, we were assured, and that was that. Off to the Bahamas and then 40 years "on a merry-go-round of idleness". What a cop-out (by the programme, as well as its subject).
More hanky-panky, this time of a more suburban kind, in Adultery or Therapy?, one of those shoddy little ITV shows which the channel too often runs these days in the slot vacated by News at Ten. Currently under attack for the sharp decline in ratings for its evening news service, ITV can hardly be doing its cause much good with vacuous, badly-made, prurient programmes like this.
David Miller runs Loving Links, an agency for married people searching for a little rest and recreation outside the marital bed. At £75 an issue, you can buy Miller's magazine, with its lists of "bubbly, mature blondes" and "athletic, professional men", all looking for discreet encounters in cheap hotel rooms. For a £500 fee, he will also set up meetings between mutually compatible clients. In some ways, Miller's service is like any other dating company, a point he was keen to emphasise: "Back in the 1960s, when Dateline started, it seemed outrageous," he said.
"Now it's as respectable as the Church of England." Leaving aside the question of how respectable the Church of England actually is, Miller's claim that Loving Links would itself be equally respectable in 20 years' time looked, like everything else in this programme, disingenuous. A sad parade of Loving Links customers, imperfectly disguised with strange wigs and even stranger lighting, their voices altered so they all sounded like Darth Vader, lined up to justify their furtive excursions, intercut with a psychologist who pointed out what a pathetic bunch of lying emotional failures they were (well, being a psychologist he didn't actually use those words, but that was clearly what he meant).
But the main point about Adultery or Therapy? was how deeply boring it all was. Listening to yet another badly-disguised adulterer droning on about his or her dreary, seedy little life, I committed the cardinal sin (and occupational hazard) of the TV reviewer - and fell asleep. Waking up, I decided that even the traditional July TV spectacle of Jeremy Paxman and the Orange Order's Denis Watson shouting at each other on Newsnight was preferable to the Loving Linkers.
One might think that we've had more than our fair share of fly-on-the-wall documentaries about families, but Family Matters set out with an ambitious agenda - too ambitious, really - to change our minds. Putting cameras everywhere you could imagine (and some places you wouldn't), this one-off programme aimed to examine every facet of life in the Bentall family, from the bed bugs sucking on Mummy's blood to the hormones coursing through her teenaged son's system, from family fights to embarrassing dinner parties.
It all sounds like too much for a single, 45-minute programme, and it was (there was a suspicion of a longer mini-series having been pruned down for some reason), but there were some entertaining and even enlightening moments along the way. Experts in various fields, from relationship therapy to domestic hygiene, pored over the footage and pronounced on the family's cleanliness, physical health and social skills. The relationship people, two rather dotty Australians who looked like Ken and Barbie 40 years on, had great fun picking out the peculiarities of family interaction: the reason people who live together for a long time come to resemble each other, apparently, is that they adopt the same facial expressions, which means that their faces ultimately crease up in the same way.
Both Mum and Dad were actors, and both admitted to being rather shy at social occasions. When they had some friends around for a barbecue, the cameras prowled the patio, picking up gestures and signals. Back in the studio, Ken and Barbie pounced gleefully: "Look at those smiles, they're so forced and false. It's obvious that they're self-conscious about the cameras being there." It's even more obvious that Ken and Barbie don't go to a lot of actors' parties.
WE'VE been hearing a lot in recent months about the new breed of "reality" programming which sets its protagonists against each other, forcing them to decide who should be dumped next. These shows have already been enormous hits in Europe and the US, and, for better or worse, we can expect them to hit our screens by the end of the year. In the meantime, the dumping strategy is being imported into other new series at the moment. The new BBC quiz show, The Syndicate, allows its team leaders to decide which members to sacrifice in return for extra points.
The Syndicate is clearly the Beeb's attempt to get back into the business of primetime quizzes in the wake of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? phenomenon. There are lots of Millionaire-type gizmos and gadgets - dramatic lighting and sound effects, a hyped-up host (Nick Ross, acting as if the whole thing was a matter of life and death), a structure which rises to a crescendo as the programme progresses. Despite all the hooplah, this is essentially a pub quiz with bells and whistles attached. Crucially, there's none of the personal engagement with individual contestants which is such an essential ingredient of WWtbaM?, and Ross certainly doesn't have any of Chris Tarrant's cheesy, breezy exuberance.
Even closer to the trial-by-cruelty ethos of reality TV is Flatmates, in which five prospective tenants are vetted for their suitability to fill a vacancy in a shared house or flat. It's a situation which has been well explored in recent movies and TV dramas, from the uppity Edinburgh yuppies in Shallow Grave to the angst-ridden young lawyers in This Life. At some point in our lives, most of us have been in this particular situation, so it's perfect material for some nice, shallow, state-of-the-art twentysomething TV.
This week's house was in Brixton, south London, and was populated by a rather smug-looking bunch of old schoolfriends. The contestants included nice-but-dim Sarah who, asked how she would vote in the next election said: "Probably Conservative, just because my parents do". This went down well with the housemates, who found Sarah pleasantly unthreatening. Flamboyant, gay Alex, who works in a nightclub, was popular with the female members of the household, but you could tell the chaps were a bit wary.
In the end, Alex got the bullet ("maybe I was too overbearing," he said wistfully), and so did Sarah, the only one who actually seemed upset by being rejected. For undergoing this ritualised, very public humiliation, the winning contestant gets the grand prize of one rent-free month. This week's winner, Sean, who admitted that his life "is a bit chaotic, but I'm looking for stability", moved in straight away and immediately seemed a good deal more extrovert than he was at the interview. "For want of a better word, he's a bit more gay than I thought he was," said one housemate glumly.
Sean didn't endear himself the day he moved in by buying a TV licence for the house, then informing the others how much they owed him. Poor Sean - someone should have told him that there are certain immutable rules about twentysomething housesharing, the most important one of all being that you don't buy a TV licence until the forces of law and order surround the building and demand that you come out with your hands up.