19 February 1997: The Times

Under Fire, There Is Nothing Like A Dame

There was a curious start to last night's Face to Face (BBC2). According to the opening titles, we were about to watch Sir Jeremy Isaacs talking to Diana Rigg. Shouldn't that be Dame Diana Rigg, I thought? I checked and indeed it should. Some people, it appears, wear their honours more lightly than others.

But that's all by the by, especially as I have no doubt that the decision to ditch the damehood for the occasion was Rigg's. The important thing about last night's interview was that it was very good, with the old format (spotlit subject, unseen inquisitor) showing that, every now and then, it can still deliver. Much credit for that belongs to Isaacs. Or do I mean Sir Jeremy?

It must have been tempting just to flirt with her. Everyone, after all, flirts with Rigg and when she's in the right sort of mood, she flirts back and you instantly get lovely television. The only problem is that it's been done dozens of times before. So to get something new required more than his "lady with the superior exterior, one of the greatest actresses of her generation" flattery. Isaacs went highbrow - very highbrow.

Question three, for example, was "what did you find in the text of Martha's role in Virginia Woolf that particularly appealed to you?" I waited for him to add that she had three hours to answer and would she please write on one side of the paper only, but he didn't. He went on: "What is acting?"

Now, it must be said that Rigg was definitely up for this sort of questioning. Where others might have said "Gosh, that's a difficult one, can we start again?" or "Hang on, can I have a think about it?" she managed to answer each one ("what's your first memory of pleasure in language?") thought fully and astonishingly fluently. I think the first "er..." came after 19 minutes.

Flirting, however, turned out to be a pleasure postponed rather than cancelled completely. For having taken us through her craft and the early years of a career that combined the Royal Shakespeare Company with Emma Peel, Isaacs turned to the stage roles that consolidated her reputation in the 1970s and 1980s. Jumpers for some reason came to mind. Lovely play, brilliant playwright, agreed Rigg. "Taking your clothes off," he mused all of a sudden, "is that a good idea?"

Looking back, no, replied Rigg with a look that said she knew exactly where this line of questioning was going. But then as far as she could recall, her nude scene in Jumpers had been pretty tame. "It was my back, wasn't it?" she answered slowly. "Or was it my bum?" Whichever it was had clearly left an impression on Isaacs. "Hmm, hmm," he agreed from the darkness. "I think so, I think so."

Apart from the annoyance of creaking joints and the injustice of what she termed "the final crumble" not happening to men until much later, Rigg was very positive about getting older. Perhaps she could have a word with John Pilger, who despite being just the right side of said crumble spent a self-absorbed hour on Network First (ITV) trying to turn the clock back 30 years. Back to the good old days of trade unions, picket lines and the Vietnam War. Back to the days when Pilger used to get his picture byline on the front page of the Daily Mirror.

As someone who currently gets a picture byline on the inside back cover of The Times , I know exactly how he feels. I'll be cross when somebody takes that away, but I'll be surprised if somebody gives me an hour of television to tell you why. Somebody, however - and for reasons that never became apparent - had given Pilger just that.

So having spent a dewy-eyed 20 minutes looking back at the glory years of the Mirror , he switched to attack. He blamed Robert Maxwell ("the great embezzler") for turning his beloved paper into a family photo album, and he blamed Rupert Murdoch...well, for everything else. The accusations were familiar, but what was not was the sight of first Hugh Cudlipp, the Mirror's distinguished former Editor-in- Chief, and then Lewis Moonie, Labour's spokesman on broadcasting, rallying to Murdoch's defence.

But as Pilger railed against the dying of once-fashionable left- wing causes (let's have more labour disputes on the front pages), he never once stopped to consider that it might be he who was to blame. That the world had moved on and he hadn't. Never mind, I would say that, wouldn't I - just remind me that I wrote it when my own time comes.

Finally it was time for my weekly fix of Fisher Dilke, the mathematician who appears destined to ensure that higher mathematics remains a complete mystery to the rest of us. Last night, in The Number Game (BBC2), he was at it again with Bayesian statistics. Bayesian what? Don't ask me - all I know is that it's a great help when you've got your yellow balls and red balls mixed up and second to none at telling whether spots on the face mean you also have measles. But according to the well-intentioned Dilke, it is a precise way of dealing with uncertainty.

Unfortunately, the best-known application of Bayes theorem to the real world involved a rape case, a subject that did not sit easily with Dilke's jaunty manner or prove very enlightening.

The fact that the conviction was quashed on appeal turned out to have nothing to do with statistics and DNA samples and everything to do with the fact that the original trial judge had been so busy explaining Bayes theorem to the jury that he forgot to direct them properly. I sympathised.

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