TV UK, 25 May

'Nuremberg' reminded me of the story about the stage production of Anne Frank's diary that was so bad the audience shouted, 'She's in the attic!'.

Dolan Cummings

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After writing two columns on the trot about the election, I’ll be damned if I’m about to waste one on Survivor and the new series of Big Brother. And since I’m now forbidden from mentioning a certain nubile young vampire slayer, I’ll have to make do with more prosaic fare.

Last week (21 and 22 May) Channel 4 showed a dramatisation of the war crimes trial at Nuremberg. This fairly dire mini-series was saved by a brilliant performance by Brian Cox as Hermann Goering. It wasn’t so much that Cox made the Nazi leader likeable (that much is cheap), but that he made him likeable and deeply reprehensible at the same time. Cox’s Goering had an almost bumbling quality that made you believe he could have been responsible for mass murder without ever really thinking about it.

The three Americans at the centre of the drama were much less sympathetic. The colonel in charge of the prisoners was such a zealot; Alec Baldwin’s chief prosecutor was so pompous; and the army psychologist was so nauseatingly ‘sensitive’ that they made you feel for the Nazis. This shouldn’t happen. (I was reminded of the story about the stage production of Anne Frank’s diary that was so bad the audience shouted, ‘She’s in the attic!’.)

It was the psychologist who mused on the nature of evil, deciding in the end that evil was the absence of empathy. By that standard, Goering (at least this Goering) can’t be considered evil. Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss would certainly fit the bill. Asked what he had thought during an educational visit to Treblinka, he replied:

‘Actually I was not impressed. It was taking the commandant there six months to eliminate 80,000 Jews using monoxide gas. I had a better idea….It occurred to me that if a little [Zyklon B] killed lice, enough, perhaps, would kill a human. I tested it on Soviet prisoners of war locked in a room and it worked.’

Not a lot of empathy there, but this nutcase is far less morally culpable than the affable Goering. It is Goering’s humanity, empathy even, that throws his inhumanity into relief. In that respect he is not unlike a certain undead Englishman in a certain action-packed but profound American programme I’m not writing about.

There is more evil to investigate in Messiah (BBC1, Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 May at 9pm). This threatens to be one of those dreadful TV thrillers that old people like, but like Nuremberg, it is saved by the lead actor, this time Ken Stott.

Stott is already established as a crumpled-and-morally-complicated-detective-with-a-past from his role in the underrated ITV drama, The Vice. Messiah lets him run with this, and of course his character turns out to be much more interesting than the ‘evil’ headbanger he is pursuing. Viewers who like to play along with detective programmes and solve the crime might find this one a bit trite, but those people should get out more anyway.

In Tales of Moral Uplift and Improvement (BBC Choice, Tuesdays at 9.45pm) Rick Mayall is Mrs Ffine Carmody, who tells a series of dark Edwardian morality tales. According to the press notes, the stories are ‘driven by Ffine Carmody’s barely suppressed fascism’ and it is not advisable to let children watch. Mrs Carmody sounds like a cross between Miss Jean Brodie and my grandmother, but this might just work.

In the stories a fat girl is drowned in sweets, a liar starves to death, a bully is chained up in an Afghan jail, and so on. I wonder what Mrs Carmody would make of Big Brother. Perhaps if the programmes were combined….

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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