WHEN the British prime minister of the day, Harold Wilson, visited Aberfan in October, 1966, he claimed to be lost for words. "I don't think any of us can find, words to describe this tragedy," he said. Seeking cover in safe, sanitised, soulless soundbites is standard practice for politicians. But, in spite of his cliched protestations of verbal inadequacy, Wilson's words could not, ironically, have been more precise and accurate.
There are no adequate words for tragedies in which 116 children and 28 adults are buried alive. Timewatch: Remember Aberfan recognised this fact. It screened news footage of the disaster, without voiceover and with all natural sound eliminated. The silence which accompanied the pictures - even a blatantly evocative zoom shot of a hearse's wheels on cemetery gravel was soundless - made this the most, striking memorial documentary since First Tuesday revisited My Lai in 1988.
Television has a grammar for its routine obituaries of the great and the powerful. Usually, a simple, bordered mugshot of the deceased is screened, with name and dates. The length of time the image is allowed remain soundless indicates the status (or, more precisely, the TV channel's estimation of the status) of the dead person. It is the media's protocol of reverence.
Timewatch used silence with more precision than most documentaries use words.
There were no mournful violins or weeping cellos and only once, a throaty Welsh choir to prod you towards the appropriate emotions. Even when broken parents wept, they wept soundlessly. Being used to television's ostentation, which regularly presents itself as style, the searing starkness of the silence was strikingly effective. There was, appropriately, no manufactured catharsis here.
Neither was there any pulling of punches. Thousands of tons of slurry and slag, set in motion by a natural spring, bloated by four days of rain, had created a water bomb. The chairman of Britain's National Coal Board, Lord Robens, claimed the spring had been unknown. But that was not true. The stream in the heart of the tip was well known and was turning it into heavy sludge. The event, if not the tragedy, was "absolutely predictable", a technical adviser, Rowland Edwards, told the tribunal.
Robens was destroyed on the witness stand by barrister Desmond Ackner. So, we had the villain, or, at any rate, the leader of the villains, of the piece. But again, Timewatch retained its dignity. Eschewing hysteria, by just presenting the facts, it cast the verbal equivalent of a withering glance at Robens and the NCB. Silence can carry contempt as easily as it can carry reverence and the director, Catrine Clay, realised as much.
But the NCB hadn't finished there. The programme revealed that the villagers had to use money from their disaster fund to pay for the removal of the slag-heap (and five others) which had buried their children. It made you realise that the miners' strike, crushed by Maggie Thatcher and the police, had very deep and raw emotions buried beneath the visible slag-heap of a standard, pit-closures dispute.
Subtly, if perhaps inevitably, this documentary connected the south Wales of 30 years ago with Dunblane 1996. Yet again, pictures did most of the talking. A photograph of the Aberfan school football team (which had won a cracking local derby, 3-2, on the day before the tip toppled) reminded you of the smiling faces of Thomas Hamilton's victims. It reminded you too that there should be no silence in the face of the whingeing gun-lobby.
Clearly, even the passing of 30 years has not killed the pain of Aberfan. A still photograph of a line of 72 tiny coffins, meeting in the distance like railway tracks, was followed by school photos of some of the children. The survivors are now middle-aged; the children they were, buried by life. The victims, buried by the NCB's meanness - the tip could easily have been made safe - remain, like the kids of Dunblane, preserved forever as children. In its quiet solemnity, Remember Aberfan was poignant enough to move a mountain, never mind a slag heap.
IN contrast, Culling Edge: Family Feuds focused on the type of people you could gladly swing for. In a gallery of grotesques, Ken Keating was the main man. An ageing, pony-tailed thug, Ken, from Salford, Manchester, appears to have a kind of Hollywood, Mafia-complex. He didn't use the word "Omega", but he does confuse honour and murder. Ken's son, Sean, had followed daddy into crime. But Sean, much to Ken's chagrin, became "a grass", a police informer.
Ken, like any parent seeing an only son go wrong, was distraught. What was he to do? Counselling? Cut Sean out of the will? Get a hard-case uncle to talk to the lad? Not likely. Ken took out a contract (allegedly for £10,000) on the pup. Just to keep his mind on the job, Ken has marked all the family photos of Sean with the inscription: "You F***ing Grass". That way, Ken's criminal friends should be impressed when they view the snaps hanging on the wall of Ken's "family room At one point, Ken pushed a picture of baby Sean towards the camera. "If I knew what Sean was going to do to his family, I would have smothered the little bastard then and there," he said. Sean, it is clear, knows his dad is deadly serious. He has skipped Salford and bought (or maybe borrowed or stolen) a curly, black wig, which sits on his head like a wet Yorkshire terrier. He has a pair of Denis Taylor glasses too, probably bullet-proof, like the vest he wears 24 hours a day.
In truth, Sean is just as unattractive as his father. We saw a video he made - allegedly a promo-job, but it looked frighteningly real - in which student thugs are shown how to deal with informers. Basically, their faces are covered with a towel and then punched to pulp. Presumably, it gets rough after that. "Aye," says Ken, in a single, mellow moment of wistfulness, "Sean was always better with the camcorder than I was." There was regret in his voice . . . regret for the criminal talent wasted. Sean, if he hadn't taken such a wrong turn in life, "coulda been a contenda".
"Sean was trusted because he was my son," said Ken, peering over a "Grass Watch" sign on his front window. As far as Sean is concerned, his dad is"... a sad old man. He wanted me to be a hit man or a bank robber or whatever, but the criminals he's trying to impress don't care a toss for him". Beside Aberfan and a community's shattering loss of a generation of children, this father/son row was about as sick as it gets.
There were three other stories in Family Feuds. Harassment, assault, threatening phone calls - even accusations of witch-craft - were featured. There was a nastiness, a sniff of sadism, in all of them. But the Ken and Sean Keating story, revolving around the hypocritical oath of honour among thieves, made you wonder why the restless slag-heaps of the world couldn't be more selective. At least the Manson Family could blame drugs.
MARTIN McGuinness can blame the IRA's Lisburn bomb for giving his opponents plenty of ammunition on Questions And Answers. This week's edition of a series, which had become not only tame, but soporific, was uncharacteristically explosive. Indeed, it was the dearest to a verbal civil war heard on RTE in quite some time.
The sort of words which used to be banned in decent pubs - Nazis, fascists, Blueshirts, propaganda, Hitler internment - were machine-gunned around the studio.
In the blue corner were FG TD Alan Dukes and author and historian Ruth Dudley Edwards. In the green corner, McGuinness was accompanied by FF TD Ray Burke. In the middle, though he did not remain there for long, was John Bowman. Dukes and Burke were, not surprisingly, the moderates in their respective corners. But McGuinness and Edwards were, clearly, so far apart, that, as with the Timewatch documentary, no simple catharsis was possible.
"I would intern Mr McGuinness, Mr Adams and their colleagues tomorrow," said Edwards, after she had agreed with John Bruton's description of the IRA as "fascist". Burke had argued that "Drumcree showed the fascist face of the Orange Order" and must have revelled in his role as the most moderate of the five people around the table. Time was when a younger Raybo provided studio muscle for Fianna Fail.
But the positions adopted, with one exception, were hardly surprising: McGuinness, the republican; Edwards the arch-Tory and Burke and Dukes on the expected sides of the Dail divide. Bowman was the surprise. As a chairman, he is usually sharp, accurate with his facts, sometimes mischievous with mild sarcasm. This week he entered the fray with dubious gusto. His target was McGuinness - who, it must be agreed, was being evasive.
Even allowing for the fact that it is a chairman's duty to prod the panelists into straight answers and to encourage balance in individual contributions, Bowman became less than neutral. Angered by McGuinness's attempts to offset the awfulness of the IRA bomb by reference to the wrongs of the unionists and the British government, the chairman went beyond probing and cajoling. Briefly, he joined in, arguing, with visible emotion.
Perhaps a yellow and red card system should be introduced to lessen the chances of our having to witness the referee scrapping with a player. There was, though, dark comedy in seeing Raybo grab the opportunity to locate himself as the fulcrum of reasonableness in a studio, which, mirroring the North, seemed on the verge of getting out of control.
FINALLY, You Cannot Be Serious. Well, almost by definition, RTE seldom is when it rips off formats from British TV. But, this time - and against the odds this comedy gameshow, with segments stolen from Have I Got News For You and They Think It's All Over, is commendably lively. It is not quite as tight as it might be (though it is far from being incurably flabby) but it certainly has gusto.
Presented by Marie Louise O'Donnell, who manages to laugh and take part in the show, without neglecting to control its pace, it was certainly funny in spots. Since RTE, quite disgracefully, shafted Nighthawks and Scrap Saturday, satire has been a dirty word in Montrose. This new series, with Morgan Jones, Eddie Bannon. Paul Tylak and Joe Taylor as the resident wits/comedians is welcome.
Certainly, its satire could be hardened-up and some segments are much better than others. Much of the comedy is stand-up improv (albeit rehearsed) and one acting sequence was significantly weaker than the generally inventive commentaries on old black and white footage or the scenes in which different accents are demanded of the pundits. But there is promise here. Paring it to the bone is the way to go. For in comedy, like tragedy, too many words spoil the show. A strong debut.