television review

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Bob Geldof recently described the success of Live Aid as a "personal and professional catastrophe", which touches on churlishness, you might think. Think about it a bit more, though, and you can see that there is a sort of tragedy in such achievement. In difficult circumstances Geldof "did his best", and he now has to live with the fact that nothing he will do is likely to better it. Where most of us have the fantasy of a rising note to our lives, he must manage the diminuendo as best he can.

He also has the burden of virtue to cope with, that degrading stuff about Saint Bob, which denies the simple human practicality of the decision he made. I'm not sure whether Geldof is a good man or not - I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't either, since every day might overturn the verdict - but he incontrovertibly did a good thing 10 years ago, and he showed millions of others how accessible decency is, even from the most unlikely quarters. Those who view the legacy of Live Aid as a promise betrayed have the luxury of not knowing how the world might have looked without that lesson. It was good to be reminded of this by BBC2's return journey on Saturday night.

The ironies, of course, are as alive now as they were on the day. "Water please!" read a hand-written sign in the crowd - someone had paid handsomely to be parched, you thought, and all to relieve the consequences of drought. Well, in theory at least, because for many of those present the day wasn't a charitable deed so much as a bargain - an unrepeatable offer on the world's headline acts. "The tickets were pounds 25," recalled one fan, "but I thought, it's gotta be worth it... because I was heavily into music. The acts, too, could be forgetful of why they were there - Adam Ant's exhilarated "Look, Ma - I'm on top of the world," suggested that rock stars' familiar priapism of the ego found it impossible not to respond to an audience of two billion people.

But Geldof knew that purity of motive was rather less important than the results - which is why the line-up was so eclectic, so uncool - "You sell nine million albums, you're on," said Geldof, in one of his rare moments of recollection. There was other evidence of his determination to maximise the audience - an American producer remembered getting a call after his cameras had panned across a topless fan in Philadelphia: "No tits - or we'll lose the Muslims," barked Bob.

His calculation meant that the audience that saw the famous Live Aid video - images of dying children cut to the comfortable plangencies of The Cars - was very large indeed. That film knocked out late at night by a restless cameraman probably did as much as anything to restore a little perspective to the party. Ten years on, the videos were far more polished, a series of elliptical films with numerical titles - 1000BC, 50 Degrees, H20 - which brought the lustre of commerce to Ethiopia. They were like adverts for adversity - the Third World as a palette of stylistic effects. They looked ravishing, and touched nothing but the eye.

African television gives a more candid account of the continent's problems, as you saw in Afrika TV, a hilarious and touching compilation of local broadcasts. The poverty of means is startling. You wouldn't expect Ugandan television to have access to electronic effects, but you thought they might have been able to run to a pot of paint - the quiz that looked as if it had been filmed in a derelict cricket pavilion proved otherwise. The Namibian presenter charitably pretended that the distinctive African style might prove elusive - "At first glance," she said, "you may think it's not that much different from western television." Not much different from a Lenny Henry sketch, perhaps, but a world away from anything else.