Andrew Billen - Communist plot

Television - Gorbachev traces the highs and lows of the Soviet Union. By Andrew Billen

Big Idea

To "do what it says on the tin" is the growth cliche of the year. In a media landscape crowded with trickery, the simplest proposition is beginning to look like the best. So, on one channel there is Davina McCall trying to explain to contestants and viewers the ins and outs of Big Brother's latest concept: the "unlucky" 13th housemate. On the next channel, there is Mikhail Gorbachev looking into the camera and saying: "In this film I'm going to tell you about an idea that changed the world." I know which is the come-on for me.

The format of Five's Big Ideas That Changed the World (Tuesdays, 7.15pm) is barely a format at all - yet the deceptively low concept of having a top authority explain his or her subject from first principles is pretty well indestructible. It certainly worked in the first of this six-part series, which featured the last Soviet leader explaining the "beautiful and dangerous" idea of communism. Three-quarters of an hour, minus an ad break, is no time at all in which to tell the history of communism, but long enough to extract the moral from the story, something Gorby was by no means loath to do. Communism, he concluded, in its determination to prevent enterprise and business, ran counter to human nature. Yet he also made us understand how millions of people, including people as clever as he, convinced themselves not only that it could work, but that its triumph was inevitable.

Gorbachev had no time for detail. Engels did not get a name check when it came to the how-it-all-began paragraph on the Communist Manifesto. Even Lenin was a fleeting presence, a visionary whose tragedy was to die before he could act on his dawning realisation that communism would never work if it denied people the opportunity to better themselves. In this telling, as significant as Lenin was Gorbachev's grandfather, the Everyman of the story. Captured in a photograph, the peasant had his grandson's jawline and, clearly, his determination to improve his people's lot through organisation. "My grandfather always told us that the Soviet regime saved our family from starvation," Gorbachev said. Even when he was arrested by the secret police for keeping back a small amount of grain for private use, the dream endured in Grandad's mind. Returning to the family when his grandson was nine, he told them about the tortures he had undergone, but never mentioned them again: it was not Stalin's fault. "I don't know if my grandfather can hear me," Gorbachev said to camera rather movingly, "but I can tell him I personally saw his [name] on the list of people intended for execution."

Stalin's madness was his backwards enforcement of Marx's theory that communism would triumph in industrial nations. Yet his central command of the newly industrial Russia, so damaging to the economy, proved the nation's salvation when it came to managing the Second World War. In its moment of triumph, it seemed natural that communist regimes should now spring up everywhere. In technology, sport and space flight, Russia led the world and - Gorbachev implied - might have continued to do so had the reformist Khrushchev not been ousted by hardline Stalinists. In the bleak new era that followed, political debate was confined, in Gorbachev's withering phrase, to the kitchens of private apartments. When Gorbachev himself entered the Politburo, he confided to a friend that he was not sure he was up to the job. His mate replied: "It does not matter if you can cope or not. The only thing that matters is if Leonid Brezhnev trusts you."

The story of his own years in power, in which he tinkered with the machine only to find it collapsing on top of him, was, oddly, the least compelling stretch of the film. Perhaps the events are still so fresh in our minds. (I did, admittedly, enjoy hearing how he told the guards who arrested him while on his holidays in 1991 that they were "jerks - among other things".) But Gorbachev ended strongly by turning his argument about theory versus human nature against global capitalism and its suppression of "equally important" values such as solidarity and equality. Capitalism, he said, needs its own perestroika.

With Gorbachev's commentary - much of which seemed to be ad libbed - matched seamlessly to archive film and pictures, this was the model of what an illustrated lecture should look and sound like. It even ended with something for the quotation dictionaries: "A dream is never achievable. If it is achieved, it is not a dream."

Next up in the series is Germaine Greer on feminism - another gem, which also ends by giving capitalism a good kicking. Greer argues (a little loosely, I feel) that the "cultural expression" of globalisation is pornography. A feminism whose goal is liberation rather than equality (Greer can't care less if she gets the right to join the Garrick Club) is, she asserts, more needed than ever. It is the sort of accessible, passionate essay to send any intelligent sixth-former online looking for more information on names she may have never heard of: Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Betty Friedan. Greer - who modestly underplayed the significance of her own book The Female Eunuch - will most probably be known already. She has, after all, been a Big Brother contestant, over on that public service channel.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times