Daytime TV: Burning blue

Gary Day learns little about Roy Orbison, finds poetry in space and sees eternal optimism at Wimbledon

July 9, 2009

In Make My Body Younger (BBC Three, Wednesday 1 July, 8pm), 23-year-old Bobbie had to learn how to eat vegetables, about which she obviously had a phobia. A nutritionist was parachuted in but could only shout at her. Not an edifying spectacle.

It was debatable whether we learnt more about Roy Orbison or his second wife Barbara in Legends: Roy Orbison - The "Big O" in Britain (BBC Four, Wednesday 1 July, 8pm). His first wife died in a motorbike accident and, shortly after, two of his sons were burnt to death in a house fire while he was on tour in England. After such loss, what comfort? Why Barbara, of course. "It was such a gift for him to have fallen in love with me," she explained. If Roy was grateful, it didn't come across in his songs, which, as Robin Gibb brilliantly described them, were a form of "controlled crying".

Clearly under the impression that we loved her almost as much as she loved herself, Barbara was tireless on the subject of her own allure. Roy would do anything for her "smiling green eyes", she said. Is that why he wore those dark glasses? No. He had left his spectacles on the plane. He didn't have a spare pair, just some prescription sunglasses, which thereafter became his trademark.

In the end, we discovered only a little more about Roy than we did about Barbara. It is not in the nature of such programmes to inform us of anything new, only to renew the image. Did you know, though, that Roy was an avid Monty Python fan?

He was certainly a remarkable performer. He stood perfectly still on stage. His lips barely moved and his hair, stiffened by Brylcreem, not at all. His slightly sinister appearance made him look like a stalker in the film that accompanied his greatest hit, Oh, Pretty Woman, which, remarkably, wasn't about Barbara.

When she was forced to pause for breath, various musicians were able to assess Roy's contribution to pop. He extended its emotional range, said Bernie Taupin. His songs "weren't just about holding hands, there was a grind and a sweatiness to them as well".

David Lynch appeared to talk about the enigmatic In Dreams, which featured in his film Blue Velvet. But his comments could not compete with the Gothic folly on his head. It was Twin Peaks translated into a hairstyle. I couldn't listen, only gaze in wonder.

Asked what was his best song, Roy replied: "I haven't written it yet." In an unusually perceptive comment, Bono said that the real rebels in rock and roll have manners. And that was Roy. After seeing him wow the audience, the Beatles shouted: "Yankee go home." He was the only act they didn't like to follow. It would be hard to find a finer tribute.

From the stars of the stage to the stars of the sky: the second part of Nasa: Triumph and Tragedy (BBC Two, Wednesday 1 July, 9pm) took us from the Moon landing to the space shuttle. There were some amusing sights (a female astronaut's hair spread out in zero gravity) and some amazing ones (an astronaut flying at 45 degrees to the Earth - behind him, the immense emptiness of space).

Two themes ran through the mini-series. The first was that the drama of space travel has the power to unite the planet. Millions watched Armstrong step down from the ladder; millions more watched aghast as the space shuttle Challenger blew up. One of the seven killed that cold January day in 1986 was Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space. Archive footage showed a woman who couldn't stop smiling. Ronald Reagan's speechwriter plundered John Gillespie Magee's poem, High Flight, for the quotations about "slipping the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God", but the Gipper's delivery moves even now.

Walter Pater wrote that "our failure is to form habits". And that, in a way, was the second theme of the programmes. Disaster struck when Nasa treated space flight as routine. So it was with Challenger, and so it was with Columbia. No one thought that a piece of foam insulation that had broken off and struck the wing of the shuttle could cause any damage. And so they didn't ask the crew to investigate. They were wrong. Columbia melted on re-entry. This time there was no poetry.

What remains depressingly routine is the exit of British players from Wimbledon. Despite Andy Murray's mum leaping from her seat and shaking her fists at Andy Roddick, the American refused to be intimidated and sent her son tumbling out of the tournament. It's Over, as Roy might have sung. At least until next year, when we can hope again. For we never learn.

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