REVIEW / When black and white gives way to colour

I'M NOT SURE that South Africa needs fictional violence just now, but it's getting it anyway. To add to the abundance of documentary material British viewers have been given in recent weeks (on some evenings its possible to feel that you've emigrated), Channel 4 began a South African made series, In a Time of Violence, at the weekend, and last night BBC 2 offered Douglas Livingstone's play Return to Blood River. They made an interesting comparison - both journalistic in their methods, both a little awkward in execution, but set apart by their point of view, one looking out and one looking in.

Return to Blood River was about prejudices, those of liberal piety as well as tribal hatred, while In a Time of Violence simply alerted you to some of your own you might have missed, its calculatedly colourful picture of Johannesburg life a reminder that even informed British viewers have a fairly monochrome view of South Africa. I can't be the only viewer who thought (with a faint blush), 'Oh, of course, there must be gay blacks there as well,' after two minor characters sashayed out of an elevator wearing fruit-cocktail shirts. And blacks who couldn't give a toss about the elections. And blacks who think the country's going to the dogs. And whites who panhandle prosperous black businessmen in the streets and get abuse for their pains.

As drama, Return to Blood River was ostensibly more sophisticated, its account of a long-time white exile returning for the funeral of his murdered father designed to display specific moral problems. After the death, Terry finds himself principal shareholder in the family firm, at odds with his unpleasant Afrikaner brother-in-law, Hannes (Warren Clarke in fine form), and his right-wing mother. The plot was as subtle in its operation as a see-saw. Someone has stolen money from the company. Is it Hannes and his partner Phil, a spivvy English emigre with a nasty line in racist banter? Or is it Daniel, the black accountant and Terry's old comrade on the protest lines?

This was a very tidy mess, sustained by the sort of lines that are more familiar from country house murders ('Only four people knew those codes'), and it left this viewer feeling mildly dissatisfied, partly because the research sat a little conspicuously in the dialogue, partly because it flinched from really disturbing your preconceptions. Having fingered Daniel as the thief, Livingstone then has him gunned down in front of his children by a trigger-happy policeman; he had a brief existence as a rounded human being, flawed and unhappy, but he died a stereotype, the black victim of state oppression.

In a Time of Violence is more clumsy in its manner, but has, at the very least, the advantage of real locations, a rich sense of place which drip-feeds information to you, even as you concentrate on something else. A hijacked truck figured in the plot of Livingstone's play; in the South African series you actually see a lorry with its licence plate painted in large figures on the roof, a detail which had no bearing on the plot but which none the less carried an almost subliminal message about crime and hovering helicopters. The dialogue too, a rich stew of English, Afrikaans and African that has the subtitles flickering on and off like faulty neon, conveys as much by its style as its content.

The plot is a Dickensian affair of overlapping stories, centred on a faintly decrepit Johannesburg apartment block to which the central characters, Bongani and Mpho, flee after witnessing an Inkatha killing. In its way it is as programmatic as Return to Blood River, but it has the virtue, at least for viewers here, of being programmed by South Africans. The details in Livingstone's play added definition to a picture you feel you already knew (that some white women now carry condoms in case they are raped, for instance). Those in In a Time of Violence actually changed the picture slightly, as when Bongani's uncle Zakes complains that the streets of Johannesburg are 'full of foreigners'. He had black immigrants from Zare and Mozambique in mind, not white journalists.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits