Daytime TV: Seat of learning

Gary Day is unpersuaded by Derren Brown, weeps for Naples and is unenlightened by Trinity

September 24, 2009

The illusionist Derren Brown played a film that was intended to get viewers stuck to their sofas (How to Control the Nation, Channel 4, Friday 18 September, 9pm). It didn't work. He should have played them Napoli: City of the Damned (BBC Four, Monday 14 September, 10.30pm) instead. Ben Hopkins' powerful documentary made you weep for the place but never want to visit it.

One old man recalled the war. The Germans blockaded the city. There was no food. The population collected rainwater in buckets. The dead lay in the street. The man couldn't stop laughing.

As the Allies advanced, the Germans tried to take the young men into slavery. The Neapolitans will put up with being bombed, beaten and starved, they will even, as another man said, sing as they suffer, but they draw the line at having their sons taken into captivity. They rose against the Germans and drove them out of the city. Flickery old film showed resistance fighters blazing away at a bell tower.

But life isn't black and white, despite our best attempts to make it so. Not everyone thinks The Four Days of Naples (as the revolt is known) was a heroic affair. One dismissed the uprising as "a bunch of Pancho Villas from the operetta". With a contemptuous wave of his hand, he claimed that the Germans were already on their way out and his fellow citizens were firing into thin air.

Naples was the first city to be liberated from fascism. Flags and banners welcomed the Allies as they paraded through the streets. A whole new meaning was given to the phrase "tea for two" as a man remembered how an Indian would serve a couple of English workers a cuppa, but never the Italians. "We knew we were the conquered then," he said, with what looked like a smile.

The Americans brought food. They brought nylons, cigarettes and lipstick. They also brought the Mafia. Men in big overcoats were put in charge of building programmes. The more presentable of them, those whose faces did not look as if they had been chewed up by a particularly hungry pit bull, were given political appointments. They helped ensure that the Popular Front (PF) did not win the election of 1948. The Church also played its part, ringing bells or organising religious processions whenever the PF tried to hold a rally.

Criminals and clergy worked with the fledgeling CIA to ensure the Christian Democrats triumphed at the polls. Whenever Neapolitans look around at the poverty, violence, poor building work and the toxic waste steaming just outside the city, they must be very grateful to Uncle Sam for saving them from Communism.

The moral of the story is "be careful who you let into your city". Judging from the first episode of Trinity (ITV2, Sunday 20 September, 10pm), the same applies to higher education. Well, sort of. Trinity is one of the colleges of Bridgeford University. It's called Bridgeford because it spans the class divide. On the one hand are upper-class students. They say things like "you blighter, you absolute bloody blighter". On the other hand are the middle-class students who are mostly too overawed to say anything. One of them, Theo, doesn't even know how to say grace in Latin. Some of the upper class do their best to put the middle class at their ease. "Have you ever come on a member of the Royal Family?" Rosalind, who is 45th in line to the throne, asks Theo. But that is another gap in his education. One which Rosalind, to her credit, swiftly remedies.

The upper class are at university to have sex, the middle class to study. And, in the case of Charlotte, to find out why her recently deceased father left the college so suddenly. Was it the smoke from Marjorie's pipe that drove him away? We saw her only once. She turned round to stare at the dean, her briar sparking dangerously. Health and Safety will no doubt be wanting a word. So, too, will the Higher Education Academy. Dr Edmund Maltravers - and how many villains are packed into that name? - has yet to grasp the basics of learning and teaching. His seminars consist of an account of his achievements. But at least his students can claim that it was a genius who taught them nothing.

And the viewer won't learn much more about Britain's universities from this nonsense. Trinity is Flashman meets Hollyoaks with possibly a dash of Dan Brown. It does have its comic moments. A bowler-hatted porter striking a gong for dinner is a clear parody of the beginning of the old Rank films. And the actors do their damnedest not to become the caricatures the script demands, but neither is quite enough to keep you stuck to that sofa. Yet.

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