TV Review – You’ve Been Trumped



A Pig-Like Atmosphere

Seasoned US politics watchers like myself know all about Donald Trump. He’s the equivalent of Nick Griffin or Nigel Farage, a far-right ideologue outside of mainstream politics who occasionally turns up in the general conversation having said something so boneheadedly outrageous that everybody can’t help having an opinion about it.

He’s spent most of the last four years banging on about how Barack Obama shouldn’t be president because he wasn’t born in the USA. This borderline-racist codswallop reached its nadir when Trump demanded that Obama release his birth certificate, and declared that he had private eyes working in Hawaii (Obama’s actual birthplace) who were turning up some incriminating stuff.

When Obama, clearly fed up with the likes of Trump, released his birth certificate it didn’t stop Trump one iota, although we’re still waiting for the incriminating stuff to come out of Hawaii. With a week to go until the US presidential election he might be leaving it a bit late. When Trump briefly put forward the idea of running for president himself, even the Tea Party Republicans thought he was too absurd. The only people who thought he should run were US satirists, who saw a potential goldmine of yuks.

So why do people listen to Donald Trump? There are rather a lot of Americans who have views and opinions just as extreme as he, but no-one gets a much notice as he does. The quick answer is that he’s rich. Very rich, and Americans respect people of wealth more than just about any other country in the world.

The problem is, Trump is nowhere near as rich as he’s portrayed. His occupation is Property Developer and, as the 2008 crash proved, no other financial area is as distorted as property. The whole thing is predicated on smoke and mirrors, of projecting wealth and borrowing as much as you can get away with. There’s been plenty of investigations by the sort of private eyes who are not in Hawaii to prove that Trump is nowhere near as wealthy as he says he is. His whole life is a projected falsehood, designed to convince people he can make them money.

You may think Donald Trump hasn’t really impinged over here in Britain, yet he has. As You’ve Been Trumped (BBC2) documented, Trump has been bringing his supreme arrogance and fairy tales to the people of Scotland. In particular the peoples of Aberdeenshire, who once hosted the filming of Local Hero, a film about an American corporation aiming to buy an entire Scottish village in order to turn it into an oil refinery, to the delight of the village who aim to make a packet. Local Hero is invoked throughout You’ve Been Trumped, despite the people in the way of Trump’s development of a ‘high class’ golf course being very much against it.

Molly Forbes, a local resident whose small farm butts against Trump’s development, keeps chickens. When she’s not worrying about foxes, she collects eggs every day. “There’s sometimes two. There’s sometimes one. Sometimes none.” She shrugs about the days she’s eggless as just one of those things.

Here’s how someone like Donald Trump would approach Molly’s business model. On average, she gets one egg a day. That’s a source of revenue. So he would go to a bank and borrow 100 eggs on that one egg a day – saying to the bank I’ve got a steady income so you know I can repay you. Then he would go to a gullible rich person with those 100 eggs and ask for 1,000 eggs to fund a high risk omelette that he says will generate 10,000 eggs, or whichever number he plucks out of the air.

Meanwhile, the bank have taken Trump’s 100 egg debt and hedged it to an insurance firm in order to borrow 100,000 eggs. In turn the insurance firm have put the 100 egg debt together with similar debts and somehow managed to borrow 1,000,000 eggs on the back of it.

Then, one day Molly’s chickens don’t produce any eggs. Molly has prepared for this. She’s got the shrug. Donald Trump and all the masters of the universe haven’t, and suddenly the people they’ve borrowed a huge amount of eggs from want them back. And they don’t have them. In Molly’s world, they would be screwed. In Donald Trump’s world, they conjure up pretend eggs and call it ‘market confidence’. And then they borrow more eggs.

Molly Forbes’ world and Donald Trump’s world don’t usually mix, but Trump has pledged he will build a golf course in Scotland, and because he’s Donald Trump it’s not just any golf course but the biggest in the world. Trump is the sort of person who doesn’t do reasonable. It has to be excessive in every regard. Excessively big, excessively classy, excessively domineering to every other golf course that dares to call itself a golf course.

Scotland already has plenty of golf courses. They invented the fucking game, and golf-mad Americans regularly have golfing holidays there to check out the notorious links courses, which is golf played in the teeth of biting wind off the sea. But Trump wants to essentially re-locate the more sedate US courses to a place vastly unsuited for it. Some Americans playing in Scotland were interviewed. “He’s gaudy… I’m not fond of Donald Trump… I’m not sure it’s gonna be a very successful operation… I’m not sure it’ll fit in with the traditions.”

See, Americans know all about Donald Trump. They know about his gauche lack of taste and propensity to put his name in 20 feet letters on buildings he purportedly ‘owns’. Scottish people were put off too, at first. Aberdeenshire council blocked the project for environmental reasons – not just because it would ruin rather a lot of Scotland’s wild and beautiful coastline, but building something aimed squarely at the US market would burn up a lot of aviation fuel.

However, the SNP leader Alex Salmond, who just happens to be MP for the area, wanted it to go ahead. Seeing as he was unashamedly courting Rupert Murdoch at the height of the hacking affair, Salmond finds it hard to resist the imprecations of money, however illusory. He heard a billion dollars and didn’t question it further. Clearly, he’s not a Manchester United fan.

And we haven’t even got to the meat of the documentary yet. The director, Anthony Baxter, smelled something was afoot so befriended some local residents and recorded their experiences as Salmond got his way and compulsory purchase orders were issued. The locals rebelled. Trump stuck his nose in the air and sent in the trucks, heavily outnumbered by security.

Aside from the aforementioned Molly, who couldn’t be sweeter, there’s also Susan Munro, who may look like a chain-smoking cat lady but knows how land works. She boggles at the sheer amount of sand that’s being moved. “I’ve never seen anything like this, anywhere. The mess he’s making.” Susan is aghast when a prediction that other moving work will cause flooding comes true.

The source of the water soon becomes apparent, as the workers have cut off a spring that supplies water to the locals. They’re in no hurry to restore it. When Anthony goes up to the site to complain on the residents’ behalf, a foreman enquires, “is that an expensive camera?” Anthony is followed to Susan’s place by police and roughly arrested on Susan’s land. Because, according to the powers-that-be, it isn’t her land anymore. She just hasn’t accepted it yet.

But the biggest target of Trump’s ire is a local farmer called Michael Forbes, who has been at the forefront of opposition to the golf course. Trump can barely hold in his contempt. “Mr. Forbes is not respected. He lives in a pig-like atmosphere.” Mr. Forbes looks exactly like what he is: a farmer. However, cutting off his water will probably not improve the atmosphere.

“I voted for the SNP for 35 years,” says Michael, bitterly looking at a road created for security patrols on his land. “Never again.” We see Trump on David Letterman, and the wily chat-show host knows his guest well, actually showing a picture of Michael Forbes because he knows it will annoy him. Trump bristles. “I don’t need it [his farm]. Nothing I need.” Such a shame that he invaded Michael’s land for no reason.

David Letterman is not the only one not liking the way things are going. Lawyers are starting to get involved (“this is unprecedented”) and respected academics are handing in their honorary degrees. A man from the LSE has looked over the figures and concluded, “think of Mr. Trump as a poker player, and he’s bluffing.” There’s going to be a point when the bellicose but wily Alex Salmond, seeking votes for Scottish independence, will realise that handing over parts of his country to blustering liars was perhaps a bad idea.

But will even that stop Donald Trump? Will anything? Certainly not honour or empathy, if his absurd haircut is anything to go by. He’s someone who simply never hears the word ‘no’. Last week, Trump announced that he had something that would blow the US elections apart. Some people speculated about it, although the vast majority thought it would be something utterly irrelevant and dickish. It was: Trump challenged Obama to reveal his college records, in return for which he would donate $5 million to charity.

Americans are fascinated by Trump because he’s a supreme dick. And they listen to him, not because he’s a brilliant businessman or wily operator. It’s because he’s on the telly. He’s the star of the original US production of The Apprentice, telling people they’re fired on a weekly basis. He’s about as respected as Snooki and as grimly fascinating. He’s also a bully.

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TV Review – Dallas, Charlie’s Angels, Fresh Meat, Have I Got News For You

Penetrating The Firewalls

It’s hard to believe now, but Dallas (Channel 5) was the most watched programme in Britain in the early eighties. It was an American import that commanded a prime Saturday night slot and people were utterly obsessed by it. It spawned spin-offs (Knot’s Landing), rip-offs (Dynasty, Flamingo Road) and low-rent British variants like Howard’s Way, which Fry and Laurie gleefully satirized in their ‘Marjorie’ sketches. Without Dallas, the landscape of eighties TV would be very different.

And yet it’s hard to avoid the fact that Dallas was a load of crap. For 13 years (an enormous time in the fickle world of US TV) it stank up the world’s airwaves with terrible dialogue, wooden acting and increasingly unlikely scenarios. Unlike the characters, we all remember the time when a whole season was revealed to be a dream. It was the televisual equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey, a phenomenon that people had to watch to see why everyone else was watching it. It finally died a death in 1991.

Now it’s back, but not to prime-time BBC1 but the rather less watched Channel 5, and it’s as bad as ever. Of the original cast, only three return: Larry Hagman as the bumptiously villainous JR Ewing, Patrick Duffy as his constantly pained brother Bobby and Linda Gray as JR’s famously overwrought ex-wife Sue Ellen. They all look more or less the same yet very different, like Madame Tussauds dummies of their 80s selves.

But the emphasis is on the younger generation. All those babies and ankle biters from the original series have grown into fashion models, and rather than getting photographed for the cover of Men’s Health they are struggling to carry on their parents’ legacy of back-biting, bitching and ball-breaking. John Ross, JR and Sue Ellen’s son, is struggling with things called ‘shale plates’ and the lack of tankers to transport the oil he’s digging up out of the ranch.

There’s also Bobby’s son Christopher, helping his poorly pa and gloweringly resentfully at all the privileges John Ross gets, not realising he could be fronting a Karl Lagerfeld Autumn range. The dialogue hasn’t improved, mostly consisting of not-so-veiled threats that are the basics of soapy nonsense like this since forever. “I’m not in the mood to argue with you Uncle Bobby… you push me and I’ll kick you out of this house… you have no feeling for this ranch… is this really about Southfork or is this about Elena?”

Elena is one of many Venezuelans who are there to put various spanners in the Ewings’s all-American works, for whilst there’s plenty of oil in that there ranch, these hard-working honest ‘Merkins still need help from dastardly Forners. JR is largely absent in this episode, wisely leaving his son to deal with the diabolical Venzuelans whilst he gets unsexual ministrations from a trio of lovelies in Las Vegas.

It’s the only moment of humour in what is actually a pretty grim hour. The old show at last had some kitsch appeal in its much-heightened reality. The fatal mistake here is to take everything seriously. Some of the characters even swear, for flip’s sake.

There’s no chance of that in another revived ‘classic’ American TV series, Charlie’s Angels (Channel 4), a remake of a ludicrous original that keeps every inch of its absurdity. The setup is the same: three gorgeous, dangerously thin models are actually crime busting ass kickers sent on jobs by their never seen boss. These assignments usually involve them going undercover in glamorous locations and wearing great clothes. And that’s it, every week.

This week our girls get to go to Cuba. Oo, are we in for a treatise on the notoriously fraught history of Cuban-American relations? Oddly, yes, but first our heroines have to go undercover as brash American tourists in order to investigate the disappearance of some American women. Checking into a Cuban hotel, a creepy hotel receptionist phones a contact to describe them as “perfect”, which they are. Modern times may be reflected in the fact that there is a Blonde Angel, an African-American Angel and an Hispanic Angel, but they’re all interchangeable in their lack of imperfections.

Soon enough, they’re fitted up for possession of cocaine and shipped off to a nasty Cuban prison headed by Elizabeth Pena, who once had a career. “Americans have no rights here,” she avers, before backhanding a random Angel.

Meanwhile Bosley, the neutered male fourth member of the team, has been intercepted by a gun-toting vampy female CIA agent who knows him of old. “The last time I saw you,” she breathes, “you were a hacker penetrating the firewalls of European banks, and spent his days doing the same to European women.” She makes it clear that one of the women he penetrated was herself, for this Bosley is no wheezy old bloke like Bill Murray or Bernie Mac, but a guy who could fit in quite happily amongst the junior Ewing clan.

“I’m not a criminal anymore,” he assures her. “I was given a second chance.” He makes it clear, though, that he’s not above any further penetrating and recruits her to the mission, thereby assuring the viewer that they’re not watching Homeland.

Meanwhile, the Angels discover that Pena is running a white slavery operation that feeds girls to one Jonathan Cartwright, a master criminal so obviously villainous he even has the requisite goatee of evil. “He’s out for a stake in the new Cuba, once the Castro brothers are gone,” expositions the CIA agent, because that’s what Cuba is like these days.

The Angels and the other kidnapped American women are shipped off in an evil black van to an evil villa, where they are told by Pena to, “make yourselves pretty, the customers are due in a few hours.” Bosley begs the CIA agent for more help, only to be told that she’s the only CIA agent on Cuba. Because Cuba is not a major target of American interests or anything.

Eventually, the two of them raid the villa and manage to get everyone out, but Hispanic Angel is captured. Evil Cartwright is not happy and takes it out on Pena, giving her a slap and calling her a ‘peasant’. He further takes out his frustrations by torturing Hispanic Angel, the programme makers having forgotten that depicting torture this close to Guantanamo Bay might be a bit tasteless.

Cartwright indicates that he’ll swap Hispanic Angel for the CIA Agent. At the handover, things get a bit messy in a gun-pointing way (there are plenty of guns on Charlie’s Angels, but they’re strictly for waving around) but Pena arrives with more guns attached to Army guys. This worker has the scent of revolution in her nostrils and is after revenge on running dog Cartwright. “The peasant is rebelling. All your operations are being nationalised.” Go communism!

This revolution is quite haphazard. She merely hands over Cartwright to the CIA agent, makes a speech (“the revolution is over, the government is corrupt and Fidel is as good as dead. I don’t want to see any of you in Cuba again”) and drives off, assuming everything will sort itself out. But crafty Bosley recorded the whole speech, so Pena will get her comeuppance and that ties everything up conveniently. Even Hispanic Angel looks fine after her torture session.

The CIA Agent sums everything up in a conversation with Bosley. “They’re some pretty incredible Angels you’ve got working for you.” Incredible is the word, as Charlie’s Angels is about as credible as Spongebob Squarepants.

Far more realistic (relatively speaking) is Fresh Meat (Channel 4), the study of student life which returned this week. The major challenge facing our six gormless studentals is finding a new flatmate, otherwise their rent will go up £100. Vod has found a humourless Dutch mature student called Sabine who she hopes will be her ‘beer buddie’, i.e. someone who will pay for the beer. Josie has also got a new friend called Heather who she hopes will move in. Her attitude swiftly changes when Heather sleeps with Josie’s sometime boyfriend Kingsley, the animal attraction of a bit of hair growing in the middle of his chin proving too powerful.

Posh arse JP wants his old public school friend Giles to move in, to opposition at first (“We’ve already got one JP, we don’t want another one.”) but the flatmates warm to him. JP regrets his actions when he discovers his old chum is gay, which disturbs him far more than the ‘power showers’ they used to give each other whilst at school. “I had gay sex with a gay guy. Does that make me gay?”

He is eventually persuaded when Giles points out that just because he’s gay, he doesn’t want to have sex with him. This blows JP’s mind (“it’s like philosophy”) but doesn’t blow anything else. But too late, Sabine has moved in. “I’ve signed the rental agreement,” and that’s that. Mind, would you want to live with any of these self-involved freaks? Like the Big Brother house, it’s okay to watch but you wouldn’t want to actually put up with them.

Talking of freaks, Jimmy Savile was tastefully ignored by most satire shows but the new series of Have I Got News For You (BBC1) characteristically tackled it head-on, mostly to debunk a bogus transcript of a Savile appearance on the show. Despite being presented by national treasure Claire Balding, this was one of the darkest episodes in the programme’s history. Understandable, but you may need to lighten it up guys.

TV Review – Hunted, Homeland, Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip, Arena: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited

The Infinite Variables of Chaos

It’s an unfortunate week to be a spy series starring a blonde woman written by someone who used to write for The X-Files and not be called Homeland. Hunted (BBC1) is from the same producers as Spooks and shares with its antecedent a love of ludicrous plotlines and absurd characterisation. It starts well, though.

The first twenty minutes of Hunted are great because hardly anyone talks; it’s when they start talking that we have a problem. In Tangier, fiercely pouting Melissa George (once of Home & Away but let’s not judge) is a private sector spy on a mission. She and her team have to rescue a British doctor out of the bloody paws of a bunch of dastardly Arabs. Because it’s all spy stuff, this involves a fake assassination, a fake ambulance and a conveniently abandoned handbag.

Despite all these cunning plans, George still has to kick the ass of three terrorists to make their escape, having forgotten to bring a gun to aid her. I’m like that with pens. One wonders why she didn’t just stride in there and rearrange their asses to begin with, sidestepping the subterfuge. But then Hunted wouldn’t have a plot.

Having made their escape, George meets up with her boyfriend, a fellow spy who specialises in “clean up”, which is why we haven’t seen him until now, as there’s been nothing to clean up. We finally get a snatch of dialogue. “Let’s leave on our own terms, whilst we still can,” he says meaningfully, obviously not referring to Tangier. “There’s something I have to tell you,” she meaningfully replies. “Not now.” She wants to tell him at a rendezvous, when there aren’t vengeful Arabs chasing them.

At a relatively quiet cafe in the middle of nowhere, George is looking at a meaningful ultrasound and waiting for her beaux. Instead, three tooled-up men arrive, looking to put various bullets into her. Having once again failed to bring a gun, she improvises a flamethrower to kill one, nicks his gun to shoot another, then has to kick the ass of the last one as the purloined gun unaccountably only had two bullets in it. It’s all to no avail though, as when the police show up they shoot her.

One Year Later. George isn’t dead and there are no newborn children, but she is somewhere in the wilds of Britain, recovering. She does this by timing how long she can stay underwater, which must be the measure of how well you’re doing after a non-fatal shooting. The mad desire for revenge is, appropriately, hidden in the attic: a wall full of pictures and string joining them up.

Finally, she goes to London and returns to the company she was working for, whose boss is Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones. And finally, after 25 minutes, the talking starts. And what talking. I quote Stannis’s entire monologue, which he says on greeting George for the first time in a year. “Every second after I open my eyes each morning, I consider the infinite variables of chaos that can occur during the working day, because I like to be one step ahead. I don’t like to be on the back foot. Don’t like it at all but I’m on the back foot now. Because of all the infinite variables of chaos that I’ve pondered this morning, the one that never crossed my mind was that you’d be standing in front of me.” No, ‘you’re looking well, considering’?

The rest of the episode is equally nonsensical, as George is welcomed back easily to the firm by Stannis. “I put my neck in the block for you,” he assures the watching millions who would dare disbelieve such a move. She attends a briefing around a giant iPad (because of course it is) where her old carefully multi-ethnic team are given the assignment of staking out a former underworld kingpin played by Patrick Malahide, the baddie du jour for this sort of series.

Implausibly, Malahide wants to buy a dam in Pakistan, but he’s only got one month until an election. Oh no! Our team will have to work fast then, but fortunately George can adopt a convincing American accent and pretend to be a passer-by saving Malahide’s grandson from a kidnapping. “We’re very grateful,” says an evil Malahide, in a way that suggests he isn’t.

Meanwhile, George’s (presumably ex-) boyfriend follows her home. He’s so good he gets there before her, which is a special trick spies have of having a scriptwriter cheat for them. She’s naturally suspicious of him – not just for the way he twists time and space – as he was the only person who knew she would be at the cafe. He rightly suggests there are easier ways to break-up with her. “It’s not me it’s you,” like normal people. But as we’ve already established, these are not normal people. This is proved when she shows him her wound and it’s in on the wrong side of her body.

But there is a suspicious dude (helpfully called Blank Faced Man in the credits) on their collective tails, and he’s just killed a Dutch scientist who’s an “expert in water contamination” by injecting him in the eye. Lovely. It all means something but I don’t think I can be bothered to tune in next week for the answers.

It doesn’t help Hunted’s cause that it has to be compared to Homeland (Channel 4), which returned this week. Homeland does everything right that Hunted gets wrong, despite being equally preposterous. After a critically lauded first season that only partly felt like it was being made up as it went along, Carrie and the boys returned for a second series of sleeper agents and bipolar wackiness.

Just as an all-too-believable Israeli attack on Iran is dominating the news, Carrie (the excellently twitchy Claire Danes) has had her ECT treatment and is now living a quiet life of teaching and living in her almost-as-crazy father’s house. Then the dreaded call to return to the CIA arrives from her boss via the dependable Saul (“Tell him to fuck off.”). Saul has been approached by a potential agent in Beirut, but it turns out she’s Carrie’s actual agent, kept off the books “because I was interested in keeping her alive.” Now, she’ll only talk to Carrie.

So Carrie dyes her hair black, gets a suitably dour new name in Morrissey (“double R double S”) and heads off to Beirut. She meets up with her agent, who turns out to be the wife of a Hezbollah leader who’s heard word of an attack on America. But their meeting is discovered and Carrie is forced to flee through crowded streets, in a scene reminiscent of the similar one in Hunted. Rather than have a carefully choreographed fight, Carrie knees her pursuer in the balls and runs away, grinning insanely. She is definitely back.

Stuff happens with our other protagonist, Damian Lewis’s now Congressman Brody – including him coming out as a Muslim to his shocked family – but it’s never as interesting as what’s going on in Carrie World. Brody is also still secretly working for jihadist mastermind Abu Nazir, but at least he’s getting his instructions via intermediaries rather than a Bond-esque giant video screen. He’s still needed to break into a CIA safe though, which felt as silly as it was tense.

Homeland is still light years ahead of Hunted. It reflects real-life events in a persuasive way, whereas Hunted lives in a parallel universe where the Bourne films are based on a true story. Judging by the large amount of credibility-snapping dramas the BBC have been making of late, the US are going to continue their dominance of the best TV dramas around at the moment.

The BBC can still point a camera at an interesting person though. Ian Hislop has been quietly making documentaries on his personal obsessions (Church of England, do-gooders, scouts, railways) for a while now, and Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip (BBC2) details the history of what he clearly thinks is an essential English characteristic, now on the decline. The stiff upper lip, asserts Hislop, is a “badge of national pride,” that only really came into being when the Duke of Wellington became a national nero. Before that, we were a lot looser.

A Dutch scholar in 1499 noted that, in Britain “you cannot move without kisses” and the previous national hero before Wellington, Nelson, was known to not only carry on with married women in foreign locales but asked his second-in-command to kiss him on his deathdeck. Nelson’s funeral was chaos, with 10,000 people all trying to prove they mourned greater than anyone else.

Perhaps this nation has loosened up in recent years as what this description of the funeral most reminds you of is Princess Diana, as I’m sure Hislop is all too aware given the most controversial issue of Private Eye was the one put out after Diana’s death. Hislop clearly misses a time when some off-colour remarks about a recently deceased celebrity would be met more with a ‘harrumph’ and a shaking of the head, rather than the rending of garments.

In Arena: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited (BBC2) a lot more time was spent on the avant garde scene in the sixties than the actual home movie they were supposed to be talking about. Maybe they’ve finally scraped the bottom of the Beatles barrel, at last.

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