Television Review

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A MEASURE of personal tragedy added weight to Panorama: Boys Don't Cry (BBC1), an investigation into the rising number of suicides among young males. Each day in the UK, five men under the age of 35 take their own lives. The brother of the presenter, Juliet Morris, killed himself four years ago, and helped bump up those statistics. Morris unfolded a series of heartbreaking stories, told through interviews with the parents and friends these boys left behind. Fathers swallowed back their tears. Mothers tried to keep smiling for the camera and struggled to get out words as monstrously definite as "dead". Mates down the pub gazed, baffled, into their lager. Unsuccessful suicides breathed a sigh of relief and trotted out horror stories involving valium and razor blades. Panorama's interviewees told their stories with a quiet dignity, and it was impossible not to feel acute sympathy and respect for them. All of which makes criticism of the programme itself rather tricky.

However, Boys Don't Cry had many shortcomings, mainly as a result of the intensely personal slant that it took. It zoomed in so close on a handful of cases that it found itself unable to come to any firm conclusions. Psychiatrists were enlisted to make noises about unemployment, money worries, and the emotional reticence of male culture. Tony Wilson, ageing yoof guru and supremo of Factory Records, popped up to talk about his promotional work for Calm, a helpline for young men in trouble. As Factory's success was partly built on the posthumous cult following of Joy Division's frontman Ian Curtis (who hanged himself in 1980), it was a pity that Wilson wasn't asked to comment on much more than his talent for leaflet design. I grew up in Manchester in the 1980s, and I know at least one young man who tried to do himself in after Curtis's example.

Moreover, nobody suggested that the recent increase in young men's despair might be related to the equally recent upsurge in young women's confidence. None of Panorama's experts suggested that young men might feel marginalised, useless and (often literally) redundant in a society in which they are rapidly losing their ancient illusion of superiority over women. Even The Full Monty managed to work this one out, so I don't see why it should have remained such a mystery to Panorama.

Except, of course, that it wasn't really a mystery to them. It was just that the programme's powerful testimonies retarded the analysis of its subject. It hinted, gently, that most of these men had resorted to suicide after arguments with their girlfriends and mothers. But for Juliet Morris to highlight this any more than she did would have been tantamount to holding these women responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. And the tear-smudged mascara told you that they blamed themselves quite enough already.

Paul Watson's White Lives (C4) - a two-part film about contemporary South Africa - concluded last night, and asked at least one important question: would you buy a lawnmower from one of the former chief enforcers of apartheid? "Is your garden a jungle?" asked Pik Botha, voicing an ad on 702 Radio. "Do you have trouble finding your dog in the grass? At Livingstone's, you'll find the widest range of mowers and gardening equipment, and all at the lowest possible prices." Watson's film was fuelled by high irony, intercutting Pik's promo with footage of a black shooting victim being patched up in an overcrowded hospital.

Centrally, this was a document of white self-delusion: "Hitler is one of history's most respected men," whined a scrawny Neo-Nazi from his bedroom. Eugene Terre Blanche recited Wordsworth (and got it wrong); an over-rouged housewife protested "we're not racists, we're just traditional people," as her son leapt around the garden, semi-naked, shooting beer cans. Most disturbingly, a car-jacker (Watson's only substantial black interviewee) claimed that the police were supplying him with weapons in the hope that he'd kill as many of his fellow blacks as possible.

Whether we were being treated to a moral freakshow or a representative sample of South African opinion, it was impossible to tell. What seemed clear, however, was that truth and reconciliation are as hard to find in the new South Africa as they were in the old.