Tune in, switch off - Not nuts, that's the bankers

1st May 2009 at 01:00

Overheard in the staffroom: "Now he's pretending to be a television critic." Reply: "What's new? He's been fantasising that he's a headteacher for years." The critic's critic delivers the deadliest dart.

Though TV is often regarded as the lowest form of recreational life, there's plenty to learn out there. So this week's lessons are on economics with the affable Mr Hutton and history with that scary teacher, Mr Starkey.

But first, I got a lesson in dialogue in front of the Mark Lawson Talks to Mike Leigh show on BBC4. Recently, I saw Alison Steadman in the West End demonstrate perfect comic timing as an ageing could-have-been-but-never-was in the Alan Bennet play, Enjoy. In contrast, her youthful, guitar-playing Candice Marie in Leigh's Seventies play Nuts in May was a character out of time. She and her boyfriend were early Greens, appreciating nature on their camping trip, eating healthy vegetarian meals and following the Country Code (as it was then).

"Cigarette smoke it makes me choke, litter makes me shiver," Candice Marie warbles during the disastrous Dorset camping holiday when her husband, Keith, tries to get loutish fellow campers to show proper respect for the countryside. This could have been a series.

From things that flap (tents), to issues that make you flap. Money mystifies me. Niall Ferguson in The Ascent of Money explained that it doesn't really exist - it's only a load of promises. In anticipation of last week's Budget, I entered the economics class in befuddled state, awaiting illumination about these things from Will Hutton in his Dispatches programme Crash - How the Banks Went Bust on Channel 4.

Hutton's book, The State We're In, was a must-read in the Nineties and his recent work on China is gripping. In apocalyptic language, he proclaimed that the biggest financial catastrophe was all about "greed and ambition". This was the greatest story ever told.

The Western economy has been "taken to the point of collapse and then crippled". Lots of unrepentant money-grubbers were wheeled on as witnesses to prove it. One trader told us it felt as if civilisation got flushed down the toilet bowl. It was more like Casualty than economics.

Computer screens of financial projections could have been heart monitors, registering the weakening pulse of the patient, UK plc. Can the economy be saved from the banks? Watch this space.

Speaking of history-making moments, blood spread over the screen as David Starkey introduced one of the greatest love stories ever told - between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant on Channel 4.

It all happened a few centuries ago, so instead of living witnesses, Starkey used actors. Artificial and unnatural, they were a silly diversion. For who can beat Starkey the storyteller? Analytical, passionate and precise, he is one of television's joys. Framed in sepia on the staircase of a regal property, he might have been a painting of a historian or king. So which was the greatest story of them all, Hutton's or Starkey's? Which did I prefer?

Not history, nor economics because, important as they are, I think that it's the planet, stupid. For me, Mike Leigh's camping conservation lesson was the one to remember.

Ray Tarleton is principal at South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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