Television Review

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WHEN DID this idea get started that we are supposed to be happy? Dissatisfaction is in our bones: the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. "In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! and at even thou shalt say, Would God it were morning!" (Deuteronomy, 28:67). And so on.

Oliver James won't let it go at that, though. His view, as set out in New Britain on the Couch (Sun C4) - that word "new" adding a highly spurious air of topicality - is that we're all doing very nicely thank you, what with our VCRs and foreign holidays and sexual freedom, and we ought to be happy. But we're not!

To understand this, James examined several cases of misery among the successful classes. His star exhibit was Karen, who is attractive, young, has a well- paid and glamorous job (which she loves), a flat in Chelsea, a cottage in Somerset, a steady relationship with an agreeable boyfriend, and a fairly bad case of depression. He also looked at the case of Sarah Napuk, a high-flying Oxford undergraduate who killed herself shortly before her final exams; and spent some time with pupils at Dulwich College awaiting their GCSE results. In every case, James detected unreasonably high expectations of success, a perfectionism that created "winners who feel like losers".

"You might think," James said towards the end, " `Well, these are just outrageously high achievers who've got nothing to do with the rest of the population.' " And, to be honest, that's exactly what I did think; and James's response, that he thought their unhappiness represented some widespread dysfunction, needed to be argued a lot more closely before I'd be convinced. But even then, I would question whether it is sensible to put the clinical misery of Karen and Sarah's tragic self-doubt on a continuum with the generalised discontent that marks most people's lives: is it really just the same, only bigger? Or is it a different kind of thing altogether?

If New Britain really is less happy than the old one, perhaps the difference is not in our lives but in what we count as happiness. We don't suffer any more itches and grumbles than our grandparents; but, with our dishwashers and convenience foods, we have more time to worry about them.

I might have had more sympathy for James's view of contemporary misery if The Death of Yugoslavia (Sat BBC2) hadn't still been fresh in my mind. The original six programmes, broadcast in 1995 and 1996, were boiled down to three hours. On any telling, the tangle of feuds, paranoias and conspiracies that constitutes the last decade of Balkan history is hard going, and this version condensed rather than simplified the difficulties. At times, it got bogged down in argument - an inordinate amount of time was spent on the twists and turns of party congresses, government squabbles and peace negotiations. But in the end, I was grateful for its insistence on detail, its reliance on the viewer's capacity for understanding rather than indignation and horror. We live in a country where rigour and objectivity are so well served; in former Yugoslavia, ideologies of victimhood and betrayal, lies and paranoid fantasies, have led to the slaughter of countless thousands. We should count our blessings.

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