Television: LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Discrimination should be the stock in trade of a critic but there are times when it can be tricky. How exactly does one respond to House Gang (Sat C4), for example, an Australian comedy with the express purpose of confronting discrimination? If I was to review this programme without prejudice, I would be obliged to say that it is one of the worst-acted, least-funny comedies ever broadcast - and I haven't forgotten to include Next of Kin. But, because House Gang includes several disabled actors, I feel uncomfortable about such a harsh judgement, nervous that the verdict might be seen as something more than merely critical. As a result, I naturally end up prejudiced in its favour - determined to give it the benefit of the very substantial doubt.

So, maybe a sitcom set in a house shared by three people with learning difficulties is a good way to break down prejudice. Maybe disabled viewers will find it heartening to see themselves represented as competent, sassy and living lives of soapy normality. And since other programmes can be judged a success on the basis of their educational purpose or their social utility, why not this one? It's undeniable that it grasps the nettle firmly. The first episode was titled "Don't Call Me Stupid" (a fair sample of the project's somewhat thudding directness) and included a scene in which one of the disabled residents greets her boyfriend with a big smooch. "Eurr! Gross! Spazzos kissing! - How embarrassing!" exclaims a new arrival, a young girl who, short of wearing a T-shirt saying "Don't worry. I will see the error of my ways", could not be more clearly targeted for a change of heart. Perhaps viewers who identify with her revulsion will equally identify with her later revelation. For that to work, of course, the prejudiced would have to stay tuned - and there's little here to keep any but the converted or the very kind-hearted from switching over.

Prejudice was at the heart of Planet Islam (Sun BBC2), too. If you could ignore the menacing bombast of William Shawcross's presentation (only a whisker away from the portentous declamations of the March of Time newsreels), this first of three programmes, was instructive - reporting on the increasing paranoia of the French state with regard to its Islamic citizens. Phil Rees's film raised the vexed question of whether integration should mean an acceptance of difference or its suppression. The French education authorities have decided on the latter, banning girls with Islamic head-dress from attending lessons. Although a French court ruled in the favour of two girls who tested the decision in law, the ayatollahs of secularism have proved just as intransigent as their theocratic counterparts - expelling them for protesting about the ban in the first place. The authorities' apparent assumption that all Muslims are embryo terrorists has, not entirely surprisingly, served as an efficient incubation chamber for defensive extremism.

Rees is very clear-sighted about the self-fulfilling nature of such prejudices and the injustices that fright can sanction. Which made some of his own directorial decisions all the more odd. Take the title, first of all - which tackles Western fears of global ambition and which appears first as Arabic graffiti on decaying plaster. The idiom is alienated and threatening - distinctly un-Islamic if you associate the religion with a superb decorative tradition or a subtle intellectual history. When the camera was touring the largely Muslim banlieues, the music was unnerving, backed occasionally by a percussion of muffled explosions. But, when they went to a nearby white suburb, the National Front candidate was accompanied by jolly Gallic accordion music. To any Muslims watching, he would probably appear far more deserving of a horror soundtrack - but he didn't get it. According to the voice-over, the Muslim youths of the Picasso estate in Nanterre "prowl at night", a vulpine choice of words that seemed to endorse the prejudices of white policemen, even as the film itself challenged them. If paranoia about others is as dangerous as Planet Islam suggested, then a calmer style would have been wiser.