Archives for category: documentary

Public services are always a hot political topic here in the UK. We are always asking more of our healthcare system, law and order bodies and educational establishments. There is always a kerfuffle when things go wrong and little reward for those that makes things right. Hence the need to set the record straight so often.

It is why the public services feature so prominently in documentaries. These are tales of how the day-to-day is done away from the headlines. Many I don’t watch, especially police-based ones, purely because they don’t interest me. But education ones do. There is something so vital in how your school years form you that make the stakes that bit higher.

Educating Greater Manchester is the latest in the series and offers the usual winning combination of heart-warming stories, humour and serious challenges. The first episode highlighted many of these. It centred round how the community of the school was changing through immigration and how the issues raised are tackled.

The focus of this was Rani, an 11-year-old who had recently arrived from Syria fleeing the civil war. He was struggling to fit in through poor English and was even being bullied. An older boy from Syria, who had settled in the UK three years ago, became his mentor. He also befriended Jack. Between these two figues, his confidence grew. A particularly touching moment was when Rani discovered he no longer needed to be in the remedial class and was able to join Jack in normal lessons, which led him to burst into tears. I may also have had something in my eye at this point.

The humour was provided by Jack and Rani’s gang tacking advantage of a dirty van in the driveway by drawing the usual cock and balls that are so amusing when you are that age. Well, any age really. If you don’t smile at someone having written ‘I wish my wife was this dirty’ on a mucky vehicle I can’t help you. Even the headteacher Mr Povey found himself having to fight to keep a straight face when disciplining the boys, although he did.

But the challenges of integration weren’t shied away from. A friend of Rani’s mentor from Afghanistan was called Osama by another student, leading to an angry confrontation. Even the mentor himself was, albeit more accidentally, called a terrorist by a Polish student, which just goes to show not all the tensions are between natives and newcomers, but also between immigrants themselves.

There was also the backdrop of the aftermath of the Manchester Concert attack, which some students had attended and, thankfully, survived. What was most telling was that Jack, who lets remember is barely 12, was able to process it in a way that some of my generation and older can’t. He knew that Rani was not responsible for it. Nor his family. Not even his religion. It was a bad person who would have always been bad regardless of religion or absence of it. He wasn’t going to end his friendship with Rani. Oh no, they had more cock and balls to draw.

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If I was to make a list of my favourite people, I would have to place Ian Hislop near the top. I think Private Eye should be read by everyone, especially around election time, to help them make educated decisions as to how genuine the parties and individual MP’s are being. Beneath his satire on Have I Got News For You, he also offers some searing insights.

Hislop is also a great documentary maker. In the past he has covered the Welfare state, railways and philanthropy. His most recent one is Who Do We Let In? Britain’s First Immigration Row. It positions our current obsession with immigration within the context of Britain’s move from open doors in the mid-Victorian era to the first pieces of peacetime immigration legislation in the early 20th century.

Along the way there were some interesting stories. How Britain was so open doored, it even harboured terrorists to prove its liberalism (the fact said terrorist was French perhaps helped). How Winston Churchill was so incensed by the anti-immigration rhetoric of his colleagues in the 1900’s, we switched from the Conservatives to the Liberals. How Britain became the proud home so thousands of Belgians fleeing the German army during the First World War.

The most interesting moment though was Hislop’s interview with Katie Hopkins about the media’s role in fuelling immigration fear. Hopkins seemed to take pride in her role, claiming that two things sell papers – Maddie McCann and immigration. She also pushed back strongly on the idea that she was pedalling hate, claiming to be merely defending a country she loved, which is strange, considering most of her journalism involves talking the country down in a way that if it was done by a Leftie, would be seen as unpatriotic. Most chillingly though, she laid the blame for her and other right-wing commentators at the feet of Hislop, positing him and the ‘liberal elite’ as Frankenstein, she as their monster.

One of the things that came out repeatedly in the documentary was that history is often a cycle. In this case, a surge of immigration creates fears of crime, cultural clashes and threats to employment. Then those immigrants assimilate, aping their hosts’ habits, before the next generation sees a new set of immigrants, and the fears rise up again.

Hislop did leave us with a lesson, albeit a slightly theoretical one. Although open door immigration wouldn’t work (although other than going against popular opinion he doesn’t say why), open mind would. In other words, be cautious but compassionate. Welcome those who can and will contribute regardless of their background and reach out to those who are without support. Keep out those who are obviously dangerous and try to ensure individual communities don’t get overwhelmed. Most importantly, stick to the facts and don’t get wrapped up in rhetoric. Britain’s history will always make it an asylum of nations. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one that doesn’t function.

One of the more bizarre consequences of Brexit is the plan for a one-off special of noughties reality TV show Wife Swap. For anyone unfamiliar with concept, a woman would swap family lives with another with a different lifestyle. It was nearly always a case of some middle-class yummy mummy swapping with a significantly less posh type. What was initially a case of exploring issues around parenting and how the other half lives became just an arena for judgement, albeit an explosive one.

Channel 5 have taken a march on this yet-to-be-aired comeback by commissioning Rich House, Poor House. The big difference is that rather than just one member, it is the entire family who lives a different life. It is also more local – the first episode saw two families just 50 miles apart, but tens of thousands of pounds different in wealth. The Williams of Weston-super-Mare are in the bottom 10% in the UK, with just £170 of spare cash a week. The other family (sorry, blank on the name here) live in one of the poshest parts of Bristol and have £1,700 spare a week.

I went into this very cynical. I expected the poor family to be unambitious and lazy terrors and the rich family to be saintly but spoilt. Whilst the latter was to a degree true, I could not have been more wrong about the Williams’. Firstly, dad Anthony works a full-time job. Neither parent smokes or drinks because they can’t afford to. They celebrate their children’s achievements at school. Whilst they did splurge the cash they got, they did so in an understandable way. A new necklace for mum, for example. One of the most heart-warming scenes was seeing Anthony buy his son new football boots so he could play the sport again after growing out of his old ones last year.

There was also some interesting insights. Firstly, even though the rich family spend three times as much on their shopping, they hardly found themselves starving living on a reduced budget. They just had to shop smarter. The dad, seeing how difficult it was to make the money stretched, turned odd-job man round the house, fixing the Williams’ broken bathroom door and getting rid of the sofa out the front garden.

One of the most interesting revelations was about the rich family’s dad. Now a semi-retired software engineer, he started out at comprehensive school as his poor counterpart, but managed to climb the social ladder. It is a shame that the programme didn’t shed more light on this – was it sheer hard work? Or did he just have the fortune to walk into the right interview room at the right time?

The one other drawback is, unlike Wife Swap, there was no time for the families to swap notes. In fact, there was little time for reflection at all, the only moment being when ‘poor mum’ confirmed she hadn’t been that much happier with the money – things may have been easier but she couldn’t truthfully say they were better.

I hope the rest of the series is in the same positive vein. There are too many programmes where we simply gawp at those poorer and richer than us, and to actually feel we are meeting genuinely nice people who are just living different lives gives me a glow.

A big fashion here in the UK is TV shows about people on benefits. Some brand this ‘poverty porn’, and in many cases you can see why. It often becomes nothing more than a chance to ogle at those at the bottom of the social heap, a means to release our rage at the skivers who cost ‘hard-working families’ (an empty piece of rhetoric if there ever was one) money. I don’t know if there is a similar fascination in North America or the rest of Europe, perhaps Britain has a unique attitude to welfare that means this genre thrives here more.

So most of these shows basically show the long-term unemployed bemoaning their lot in life while working their way through a daily pack of fags. No sympathy allowed, bar in exceptional cases. The vast majority are undeserving of what they receive, with no interest in breaking the cycle.

The Great British Benefits Handout is a little different though. The premise of the show is that six families on benefits receive £26,000, no strings attached bar one – they must come off all benefits they receive entirely. The money is to be invested in getting them back into work, either to fund qualifications or start businesses. This is a grant, not a loan, as the government will make money back on the tax they receive when the participants are earning enough.

Naturally, many of the participants start by making silly decisions. One grandmother, who had spent her entire life on benefits, got botox and collagen lip implants. Another went on a mad clothes shopping spree. This, of course, causes spasms of rage in the viewer. But then if you have spent your entire life counting out every last penny, you are hardly going to be monk-like when you get some real cash.

Also, many of the participants prove to actually be real grafters when they knuckle down. The aforementioned grandmother set up a market stall selling children’s clothes and, after a little guidance, proved to be quite adept at making her money back. Likewise, another couple who had been stuck on benefits whilst one of them recovered from cancer and the other cared for their disabled son, smartly take their self-tanning business to a gym, whilst the dad also used the money to get a new HGV licence to help boost their income whilst their business slowly was being built.

The grandmother also offered a genuine bit of insight into how she ended up where she was. Trapped in the care system, she often was happier on the streets than in a home. For all the talk of everyone getting a fair shot, she never stood a chance. Now, she does, and it’s working.

This show reveals the biggest flaw behind our welfare system – it is only designed to get people from one bill to the next. It never allows people to invest, to get the qualification or unpaid work experience to get the job that will get them off benefits entirely. Perhaps we need to be more radical and trusting. Maybe there are more people who could surprise us and repay our faith in them. Perhaps this could be more than a TV stunt, but an actual ideology of breaking the benefits cycle forever.

The success of some TV formats must take channels by surprise. I don’t think the BBC ever counted on The Great British Bake Off being the star of its schedules. Likewise, I think they were also caught off guard by the success of The Real Marigold Hotel. They had probably written it off as a light-hearted documentary revolving around old age and culture clashes. Too fluffy to be worthy, too full of painful truths to be just entertainment. It was supposed to be ignored by critics and viewers alike.

And yet, it proved to be a bit of a sleeper hit. People genuinely enjoyed Miriam Margolyes and Wayne Sleep et al. careering around India, offering sage insight into old age. So much the so, the new series has been promoted to BBC1, a sign of faith if there ever was one.

The cast this year is broadly similar. There’s the dancer (Lionel Blair), the soul diva (Sheila Ferguson), the cook (Rusty Lee), the retired sport star (Dennis Taylor). If things aren’t broke, why fix them? The only real change is the location, moving to the southern Indian state of Kerala.

The culture clashes are still present. Blair is constantly appalled about how unclean everything is, although the others take a more pragmatic approach. Buying underpants proves to be an unexpected challenge for some. And Ferguson nearly had a full-blown diva strop on a sleeper train.

But then there is the beauty of the country. India appears to really know how to astound the senses. Brightly coloured temples assault the eyes. The wildlife is off the charts for sheer magnificence. And anyone seeking spiritual enlightenment is spoilt for choice, not least with alternative medicines. That’s before you even start with the festivals, the music, the food – you name it, India has it in spades.

It isn’t shy on offering insight into the cruelty of old age as well. Take, for instance, Lionel Blair’s recovery from prostate cancer, which has left him with a bloated stomach he hates (although a meeting with an alternative medicine doctor suggests a sweet tooth could be playing a part as well). Bill Oddie is also refreshingly open about his mental health, offering the gallows humour that so many with similar conditions have.

To think the message is about how well India treats the old is wrong. Yes, we have the stats on price of living and the like, but this isn’t really what the show is about. It is about not letting being old stop you seeing and doing new things. The joy of life is the big story here. And so it should be.

Amongst the Christmas specials on offer this year was The Real Marigold Hotel: On Tour. This was the follow up to the very popular The Real Marigold Hotel, a documentary series following eight celebrities as they experienced old age in India. Four of the biggest personalities returned for this special where they explored two more cultures, Florida and Japan.

Japan was a fairly sedate episode, although still interesting. Old age didn’t mean retirement. Many people in their 70’s and above still worked, albeit in less demanding jobs. The government had a scheme to help them to do so. Even those who didn’t work were far from doing nothing. Morning exercise routines were a must, resulting in a population where barely anyone was overweight.

On the downside, it did appear to be a very restrictive culture. Noise was frowned upon, including shouting, laughing and breaking wind. Also, LGBT equality is virtually unheard of, something which surprised Miriam Margolyes and Wayne Sleep. In fact, one of the most touching moments came in Margolyes’ coming out story, where she had to swear to her parents to never sleep with another woman, knowing that she was lying to them.

Florida was a different kettle of fish and covered two different resorts. One retirement community actually seemed quite jolly. People were neighbourly and friendly. The dream was relaxation peppered with a few hobbies. It was interesting that one comparison between the two episodes was the emphasis in being active in your old age, although in America this more self-chosen than in Japan. The only obvious drawback was the lack of high culture, but in a country where consumer choice is everything, someone could choose to retire and lead a life where that was more central if they so wished. I could also discuss gun laws, which to my British eyes seem bizarre, but there is an entire hornet’s nest about this issue so I won’t.

The other retirement community in Palm Beach seemed far less pleasant, even with its higher price tag. Facelifts and Botox were all the rage here, with looking young being a far bigger drive. Some of the people were perfectly lovely, but you never got the sense that this was a neighbourhood like you had at previous one.

Of course, it was possibly divisive because this was filmed in September, just as the election was kicking up into its final, most angry gear. A conversation between Margolyes and Rosemary Shrager and a Clinton supporter resulted in a full-on spat when a Trump supported marched over to offer his views. I will demur from offering my own view, bar that I have learnt never to cross Margolyes, who offers that scarily articulate anger that makes many wilt.

More than anything, this show offered some sage advice about growing old. Stay active as possible, either through work or hobbies. Be polite to your neighbours. Try and embrace change unless it is directly harmful to you. But, most importantly, be prepared for it. As Margolyes said, ‘Someone should pull you aside and tell you what it is like. Because it is shit”.

Death, despite being one of the few guarantees in life, is little spoken about. It seems odd that the opening chapter of our life has a phenomenally popular show dedicated to it in One Born Every Minute, yet the equally important closing one doesn’t. Distaste, perhaps? Maybe, yet I can’t help feeling this is a little unfair.

One-off documentary Flashy Funerals was a step towards redressing this imbalance. It focussed around three funerals that were all a little extreme. Nathan’s saw thousands being spent on flowers and every corner of his life turned into a memorial. Fona’s (apology for any misspelling) featured a Lamborghini, a Shetland pony and a double-decker bus, the latter because he stole one once with passengers still on it. Sharon’s funeral featured a DJ and disco.

On the surface then, it was easy to mock the deceased’s families trying to create the perfect memorial. Certainly, the documentary played a clever ruse on the viewer, showing them the more eccentric items on the list of requests. I admit to laughing at the floral tribute to Nathan’s electrical toothbrush and some of the more ornate caskets in the showroom.

But then it hit you with a punch as the stories of the deceased unfurled themselves. Nathan had died in his early 20’s from muscular dystrophy. Sharon had been parlaysed for the best part of the last three decades after a mystery illness. Fona hadn’t had a family Christmas in years and had never married or had children. Life had been exceptionally cruel to them and this was their families’ way of rectifying some of the pain they had suffered. I went from laughing to welling up with tears at Nathan’s funeral. Suddenly, nothing that family did for him, or what any of the families featured were doing, seemed so ludicrous.

The star for me though was undertaker Matthew. I could watch a whole series of him putting together funerals like we saw on this show. He was kind, hardworking and determined. He knew he had a duty to do right by his clients and did so. He also offered, for me at least, the most searing insight into why we sometimes go to the lengths we do when we are saying goodbye to a loved one – “the funeral isn’t for the person who has died, it is for the ones they leave behind”. I can’t help feeling a show like this could make the whole process of grieving much easier to deal with.