TELEVISION / Thought for food

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The Independent Culture
THE tenacity of human life can be remarkable. In the 40 Minutes Special (BBC 2) on three young aid workers, we were shown a one- year-old child who weighed only three pounds. His face had a look of baffled surprise and his eyes seemed to spin a little unsteadily, as if even those tiny muscles had run out of energy. Yet when a cup of formula came within reach, he had the strength to reach out and his strange chirping cry, synchronised with his breathing, rose a little in entreaty.

It was a horrible and shaming thing to watch - particularly now, as we begin to mount the foothills of a mountain of festive consumption. The schedules have already let their hair down, pulling out the first of the big movies that constitute the opening shots in the ratings war - Dead Calm on BBC 1 facing off against Aliens on ITV. One-off television programmes are already beginning to look mildly fusty and something like 'The Fight to Feed', with its heroically unseasonal determination to make us feel uncomfortable, sticks out like a down-and- out at a cocktail party.

The facts of Somalia are familiar - of an entirely man-made famine exacerbated by gang wars and looting. But generalised facts have little impact unless you have some sense of their component parts; the strength of Louise Panton's film was simply to return to a few starving children their particularity. These weren't just symbols of famine (though hunger sculpts all its victims to the same gaunt model) but individuals with names. One of the more affecting scenes was that in which a young orphan boy, now past the danger point in terms of malnutrition, clung to one of the Irish nurses for comfort, soaking up affection like parched ground takes up water. Her unselfconscious embrace was a reproof to domestic agonising. Another small child was found abandoned by the roadside, pushed by hunger beyond protest or fear when white strangers picked it up and loaded it into a truck.

It was so painful to look at, I can't imagine why anyone not compelled to would watch until the end. Even if people did, they have Western pain-relief at hand; the conventional analgesic we administer to ourselves when confronted with such scenes is to say something like, 'Well, it's terribly complicated and most of the aid doesn't get through and apparently they've got enough money anyway now.' The three aid workers here demonstrated that this convenient barrier between emotion and useful action doesn't actually exist. As you watched, you realised that some children die not because they're to weak to feed themselves but because we're too weak to convert good intentions into action.

In I'm Alright Jacques (BBC 2) Pete McCarthy ran through some distinctly shop-worn jokes about Europe and discovered (we can only hope) that it is far better to be a straight presenter who is intermittently serious than a comedian who is intermittently funny.

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