TV review: Imagine - Woody Allen | Burton & Taylor

Woody Allen has been anxious about his mortality since he was a five-year-old. Picture: BBC

Woody Allen has been anxious about his mortality since he was a five-year-old. Picture: BBC

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MY FAVOURITE two Woody Allen gags come from Annie Hall. One is a comment on bad parking (“It’s okay, I’ll take a cab to the kerb”) and the other is a comment on bad pontificating (the tremendous moment when Woody corrects a buffoon on the theories of Marshall McLuhan by summoning the media guru from behind a hoarding).

Imagine... BBC1, Tuesday and Wednesday, 10.35pm

Burton and Taylor - BBC4, Monday, 9pm

Luther - BBC1, Tuesday, 9pm

I’ve never managed to win an argument that way but I still use the parking gag every time my wife drives. Why do I do this, even when the car comes to a halt quite beautifully? To prove I’m still alive.

Allen makes films to prove he’s still alive. This was Martin Scorsese’s hunch in the Imagine… profile spread over two nights, and a blockbusting three-and-a-half hours. Not always great films, some of them pale shadows of his best work, but nearly always a new one every year. We learned from his sister Letty that he’s been anxious about death since the age of five. Upon discovering mortality, a previously sweet kid suddenly turned “grumpier, sourer”.

The portrait was made with his consent. He only said what he wanted to say about leaving Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, which was: “Apparently it was a juicy story. I didn’t know I was that famous.” But even though the profile was highly flattering, you might think that Allen, watching it back, would have got a bit bored. His own films are short and quickly shot. He always wants to watch the ball game on TV or play his clarinet. Well, when you know you’re going to die, why hang about?

The mordant Allen worldview has been as much a calling-card as the uncontrollable hair used to be, as the fisherman’s hat is now, as the nerdy specs have always been. Almost as uncontrollable for a while was the urge to cast ever younger and sexier actresses as his love interest; now he gets the likes of Owen Wilson to play the neurotic hero. This worked a treat in his most recent film, Midnight In Paris, which has become his biggest hit. Is it any good? I gave up on Woody a while ago but maybe I’ll go back to him.

The profile was great on his early life: the maid who threatened to smother him, the parents who didn’t speak to each other, cheerful Brooklyn chaos, getting married in your teens because after the bowling alley and the drive-in there was nothing else to do. Trying to get ahead, he boxed kangaroos on TV, but even by then his gags were terrific. On that failed first marriage: “My wife was very immature. One time I was in the bath and she walked right in and sunk my boats.”

Burton And Taylor began hilariously with Richard in a mink coat striding on to an underlit dancefloor. “I didn’t want to seem like an old codger,” he told Elizabeth, when in fact he was the most inappropriately dressed man in a disco since a lilac-pullovered Michael Douglas strutted unfunkily for Basic Instinct. And from there this BBC4 biopic starring Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter – the channel’s last-ever, tragically – just got better and better. And funnier, sadder, bitchier and wiser about acting and also what, in 1983, was proper, solid-gold celebrity. Truly, these two were the Posh and Becks of their day.

Each approached a Broadway revival of Private Lives somewhat differently. He knew the script off by heart; she’d never read it. He turned up at the theatre with a Welsh flag in his valise, pondered the Times crossword and quoted King Lear. She swanked in with yappy dogs and then a squawking parrot, prompting Burton to mutter: “Is she an actress or a bloody zoo?”

Ah, but she was an actress. “I was acting Antony, she was Cleopatra,” he recalled of their incendiary screen partnership. There were flashbacks to when he was King Leer rather than King Lear (“Tits, arse, belly, legs – and did I mention tits?”). Taylor wanted to believe they were still madly, dangerously in love. She was happy for the Private Lives audience to think they were gaining special insight into this most spectacular of on-off romances; he rather less so.

West and Bonham Carter were superb, although what do I know? As Burton remarked: “Critics deserve our pity. To be so close to art and yet contribute nothing to it. Like being a eunuch at an orgy.”

Luther and Alice have got a Burton-Taylor thing going on. This was already the most deranged series yet before Ruth Wilson’s psycho-confidante returned in kinky boots to stick a knife in the neck of the vigilante-killer, an act which turned her on. She is out of control and so is Luther. More, please.

Twitter @AidanSmith07

What to watch

Alan Whicker: Journey’s End - STV, today, 10.15pm

If a telly travelogue fronted by Griff Rhys Jones is your idea of a grim night (it is mine) then here’s your chance to remember that in the right hands, in a more innocent age when air travel was still quite exotic, the genre could be absolutely thrilling. A tribute to Whicker, who died earlier this month.

Caligula With Mary Beard - BBC2, Monday, 9pm

Mary Beard is almost Luther-like describing murder, 41AD-style. “The first blow to his neck didn’t kill him but the next 30 did. One rumour has it his assassins ate his flesh.” A profile of the emperor who stood for “the corruption, horror and excess of imperial Rome”.

New Tricks - BBC1, Tuesday, 9pm

The codger crimebusters return for a tenth series, intent on re-enforcing their strange popularity by staying as far away as possible from shows such as Luther. Tonight they’re in Gibraltar, probing the 1998 slaying of a drugs smuggler.

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