Television review

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The Independent Culture
I caught up late with Anthony Thomas's film Man and Animal (Tue ITV), and wasn't always particularly glad that I had done so. Several scenes, in particular those dealing with the Spanish appetite for communal cruelty and the Chinese appetite for anything that moves, had to be watched through a screen of fingers, if at all.

They were so horrible that they afforded you a little window into the agonies of the veal protesters, almost immediately slammed shut again by their grotesque comparisons between the meat trade and the Holocaust (a classic example of false reversability - because it is possible to say metaphorically of Jews in the concentration camps that they were treated like animals, it does not follow that animals are treated like Jews, or that the two are ethically equivalent).

But Thomas is a shrewd film-maker, too shrewd to rest a moral case on a local cruelty, however offensive. He showed you a cat being inexpertly stunned, boiled alive and flayed - it twitched in the cooling vat, shockingly white. Its dispatcher grinned at the camera, happy to be filmed at work. In the local market an animal stripped of its identifying skin panted weakly, advertising its freshness.

And then, just as indignation was making you dabble with some dangerous ideas: that the Chinese, perhaps, are less human than us, missing some genes for pity or shame, Thomas rubbed your nose in the hard logic of those images - that we simply draw the line of compassion in a different place, that we are less candid about how meat finds its way to our plates.

Nor does boundless respect for animal rights have very pretty consequences. The Jains of India go to extraordinary lengths not to kill any living creature, filtering their water and picking through their food, lest some tiny organism get swallowed by mistake. They also run hospitals for diseased and abandoned animals - wretched menageries in which the occupants expire slowly and in pain, because no Jain will take the responsibility of ending their suffering.

Morever, to use animals is not always simply to abuse them - were the scenes of Gismo the monkey assisting his quadraplegic owner George an image of exploitation or pure companionship? Thomas successively pulled the rugs from beneath your feet, pursuing not a moral conclusion but a moral confusion, a set of attitudes so unstable and troubled that we are bound to lose our footing in them. He does this with a rare discretion and open sympathies (he may be one of the few film-makers currently working who can enter a pet cemetery without allowing a sense of gleeful scorn to seep into the editing), qualities which allow him to take familiar material and still produce a sense of novelty.

Slice of Life (BBC2), the first of a new series about British eating habits, began and ended with startling abruptness, as if someone had decided to take a pair of scissors to preamble and conclusion. This was a bit graceless, like having a plate thumped down in front of you by a waiter and whipped away again the instant you finish. It also left you fending for yourself in the first few minutes, trying to work out just what you were being served. Social history on a plate, as Floyd might say? Or All our Leftovers , a Proustian session with Connaught Pie and carrot-cake standing in for the madeleine?

A bit of both, as it turned out. In the Cholmondely-Warner-style information films put out by the Ministry of Food, the condescension of a generation had been preserved in aspic. Some of it was Ealing Comedy - the British Housewives League illicitly circulating syllabub recipes in a guerilla war against nutritional totalitarianism, for example - and some of it was less funny. The ration gave many poor families a better diet than they had enjoyed for years; its suspension, along with all attempts at culinary education, allowed the country to slip back towards national flab - beef- eaters turned pizza-stuffers.