Archives for posts with tag: 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.


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.

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.

There’s a lot of ‘Celebrities doing things they are not qualified’ for shows on TV. Most of them are vacuous puddles of nothing, in spite of all the talk about ‘journeys’ and the like. The fact is nothing has improved for that celebrity except their bank balance. The fact that the same celebrities appear on each one makes it even less of a treat. I mean, how many journeys does a person need before they are journeyed out?

Every so often though, one comes along that is actually worth the time. The Real Exotic Marigold Hotel is more than just a travelogue or celebrity show. It is one that asks fundamental questions about ageing and retirement, showing that the slow ebbing of life escapes no one, yet is easier to deal with if you surround yourself with the right things.

Whilst some of the participants have done other reality programmes (Rosemary Shrager and Jan Leeming has done I’m A Celeb, Roy Walker and Bobby George Come Dine with Me), there isn’t a feeling that there is a grasping for the limelight from any of them. Largely perhaps because Miriam Margolyes, who adds both stature and humour, is in it most of the time, but also because you actually feel that for once the journey is for real.

Take, for example, Margolyes herself. Like many, she has no reached an age where bits of her body need replacing. During a health check, it is confirmed that she needs at least one, if not two knee replacements, as well as an operation to remove her gallstones. What is most startling though, is that while in the UK she will face many months of waiting and a bill for tens of thousands of pounds, India can offer a turnaround of just over a week for a fraction of the price, with no compromise on quality of care.

It is when discussing the medical realities of aging that this show most serves its purpose. Aging is all down to philosophy it seems. Bobby George, for example, has never allowed himself to see himself get old in the mirror, so has therefore aged less in the mind as well. Margolyes knows in reality she has to go at life slower, but is no less determined to reach all the same destinations she originally planned. All that happens is that your priorities change. Your health moves from the periphery of your vision to the centre. Being comfortable and well becomes more important than the other qualities of life.

This is actually a surprisingly thought-provoking programme, once you get past the fish out of water humour that was going to be inevitable. The beauty of India is shown alongside its poverty and backward social attitudes (class is more important here than even the UK, homosexuality is still treated as ‘don’t ask, ‘don’t tell’). It is a weird blend of tradition whilst still looking to the future full of optimism. Perhaps, that’s why it is so good at looking after their elderly. It remembers that its past is the key to its future.

If there is one genre I have a major beef with it is the celebrity travelogue. You know the sort, actor or comedian no longer gets work so their agent bags them a free trip somewhere and we are supposed to find it enlightening.

There are two categories of this genre. The first is the UK-based ones, which quite frankly should all have the title ‘Ooh isn’t Britain lovely?’ as it mainly consists of shots of countryside, stately homes and some berk trying to learn how to do dry-stone walling. Of course, it does make you wonder if you are actually in Britain at all – where are EDL marches, overflowing A+E’s, the homeless? This type of programme is the Kalms of the TV world, soothing you into thinking everything is ok so you can sleep at night. Nothing needs fixing so long as somewhere there is still a field of cute little lambs frolicking.

The second type is the international one. Here the celeb is flung to some corner of the globe. Again they take part in some mindless task to try to ‘fit in’ with the locals. In India you are expected to grind spices (although next time I suggest the presenter in question instead does a 12-hour shift in a call centre), America you become a cowboy, Spain you learn a flamenco. The worst moment is when the presenter quotes that odious word ‘journey’. Because in order for this not to be just some holiday they need to have personally grown from it. The only journey I get from it is my hand moving to the remote and putting something else on.

So it may surprise you dear readers then that I actually am enjoying Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure. The first reason for this is that the trip in question is very timely – Russia and China are two countries that seem to be rarely out of the news and are both experiencing cultural changes. China has created a capitalist/communist hybrid that is all-consuming, whilst Russia is moving socially backwards at such a pace that you do wonder if they are on an alternative timeline.

What is more, Lumley is actually genuinely engaging. As the title suggests, there is no fake ‘journey’ happening. This is a straight-up adventure, where Lumley is just wanting a good time. There is something to be said for her dry, knowing humour as well. I actually laughed at her refusal to wear traditional Chinese get-up for her tour of the Emperor’s palace claiming it doesn’t suit Westerners, as two very white people appeared. ‘You look fabulous’ she said a glimmer of something in her smile that suggested politeness beats sincerity every time when you are a tourist.

Finally, her interviews are actually interesting as well. I particularly enjoyed her meeting with a neighbour of the last emperor’s favourite concubine, who stole the episode with her ability to steamroll over Lumley’s questions. Ditto the frosty meeting between the Russian guard and the production crew, a rare moment where travelogue became an almost Newsnight-style report on censorship.

And the most joyous thing about the whole show? Not a single shot of dry stone walls.

‘Poverty porn’ is one of TV’s most controversial genres at the moment. There is a debate about how much such programmes are a look at life at the bottom of society’s scrapheap in terms of highlighting issues, and how much they are exploiting the less fortunate. Added to this is the fact these shows naturally target the most extreme examples of those on the welfare examples, whether it is those bringing in tens of thousands of pounds (often in the way it is framed unfairly so) or those struggling to make ends meet.

Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole is one such example of this genre, and compared to Benefits Street is a lot less worried about hiding its exploitative side. This week’s episode covered three particular welfare claimants in seaside towns: single-mum Stacey, EDL-supporter Dave, and ‘welfare veteran’ Debbie. In at least 2 of the three cases the viewer was actively encouraged to be angry at the claimant.

In the case of Dave, this for me at least came in his constant bashing of immigration. They were stopping him getting a job for agreeing to work for less money, had houses built for them and were discriminating against him, he claimed. But a keen-eared viewer would see that things didn’t add up with his story. Dave said he had given up work to look after his sick mum, yet bar one very short scene he never showed that he was. And besides, if he chose to give up work, surely he can’t blame an immigrant for not having one? In a bizarre turn of events, by the end of the episode he had actually started working for one in a kebab shop. I would have liked a catch-up at the end of the episode to see how he was faring, but we were denied. I would also like when people like Dave blame ‘non-indigenous people’ for their plight to be more openly challenged, or for at least for their opinions to be delved into a little more, but I suppose that denies the sound bite we as viewers apparently crave.

Debbie was arguably framed in even worse terms by the editors. We were told repeatedly about the thousands of pounds she earned on benefits, as she rolled her fags, drank her beer and threw dinner parties for her neighbours just to make space in the fridge for buying too much food from shopping. It was harder to feel sympathetic for her plight because she did not appear to be suffering, hence why her rants about how posh people look down on her became edited into comedy. Frustratingly, whilst she may represent what middle England most fears about the welfare system, she was the only one to take the battle to the rich. If tax avoidance wasn’t such big news right now, many people would just disregard her comments as those belonging to just another ne’er-do-well. A more cogent person making these comments would certainly have garnered more respect from the viewer.

Stacey’s story was a little different. Out of work bringing up a baby in a flat smaller than your average kitchen, she genuinely came across as someone who needed a helping hand, as opposed to being on the take. Her dreams for her young soon – school, college, university, a career – are simple enough in practice but a million times harder for her to achieve in reality than we would give credit for. The sheer joy on her face at just being able to take him swimming melted my heart that had remained icy throughout. But even here there were nods from the editors that it was her fault. Again, the shots of fags, the numerous tattoos etc. All this silently telling the viewer ‘well she must have got the money from somewhere’. I resisted this trap, and only wish her well. The right support could see her and her son really get something out of life. Sadly, you feel that it just won’t happen.

For me there is no debate about these types of programmes. In failing to go beyond the surface and sensationalising what they find, the producers encourage a divide between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. These extremes are treated as the norm, and quite frankly insult the intelligence of the viewer and of the individuals taking part. We need proper debates about welfare, not tittle-tattle. Until then, being poor will mean big business for TV execs.