Television Review

  • @RobertHanks
ON SUNDAY evening, the schedules featured two programmes marking the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of eastern European communism, and they both said much the same thing. It almost feels like a metaphor for capitalism - it looks like you have a choice, but doesn't necessarily feel like it.

Some of the ordinary Poles that Timothy Garton Ash met in the first part of Freedom's Battle (Sun BBC2) certainly didn't feel like they had much choice. Garton Ash visited the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, which in 1980 was the birthplace of Solidarity. At that time it employed more than 16,000 workers; now it employs around 2,000. They still earn eastern wages, but have to pay western prices. In 1980, he had observed Lech Walesa, as an ordinary electrician, rallying the workers; now, visiting the shipyard as Poland's former president, Walesa was heckled by his former workmates, who accused him of betraying his roots.

Garton Ash observed young people dancing happily to western beats in a disused warehouse, and he met a former shipyard worker who now employs 50 people, has a holiday home in Spain, and sends his daughter to private school. But the young people talked uneasily of an "everyone for himself" society, of fear of crime (one young woman's father had been shot dead by thieves). A less fortunate shipyard worker also talked about the struggle to support his family, about feeling like a loser.

A similar picture of success for the few, uncertainty for the many, was presented in The Trial of Freedom (Sun C4). Michael Ignatieff travelled to eastern Germany to meet a man who has graduated from a Trabi to a BMW, but whose wife lost her job and now suffers a sense of isolation. He then moved on to Moscow, to see a man who has made a fortune selling kitsch to the newly affluent classes.

Actually, despite the strong general similarities, the programmes had definite and intriguing differences in style and emphasis. Garton Ash remained resolutely behind the camera, observing the changes freedom had brought to a particular country, to particular individuals. Ignatieff wandered around the screen, gesticulating and grimacing, as he agonised over the more abstract problems of the New World Order - he visited Benetton's headquarters and a refugee camp in Albania, wondering whether the idea of "one world" was a moral imperative or a useful slogan for large corporations.

Both programmes ended on a note of troubled, qualified optimism - roughly, they felt that the fall of the Wall was not a victory, but the beginning of a new sort of fight. As I say, not a huge choice: but, in the end, the joy of the free market is that you don't have to choose. You could video both programmes, and then not get round to watching either.

In The River (Sat BBC2) Patrick Wright journeyed up the Thames from the sea (which, rightly understood, he said, is its real source). "It may be a short river, compared to the Mississippi or the Ganges," he announced, "but it's an intensely meaningful one." I can't think of anybody who has such an interesting grasp of the messages that landscape can contain; or such an appetite for talking complete codswallop.