Last night's viewing - Four Born Every Second, BBC1; Stephen Fry: Gadget Man, Channel 4
Four Born Every Second, Brian Hill's contribution to Why Poverty?, a series of documentaries on the subject, began with a question: "Is it worse to be born poor or die poor?" It rather depends on what happens in between, I found myself thinking, before realising that the question wasn't really intended to be answered. And unfortunately the vagueness of that moment turned out to be typical of a film that was full of good intentions but distinctly thin on the ground when it came to logical coherence.
The title, obviously, was a reference to the global birth rate and the film itself initially seemed to be setting out to examine the wild discrepancies of the "lottery of birth", which finds some children hitting the jackpot and others coming up empty. If you're born in the United States, for example, you'd be looking at a life expectancy of 78 years. In Sierra Leone, it would be just 49 years.
If this was an exercise in contrasts, though, it wasn't between rich and poor, but between different kinds of poverty, because all of the women the film followed would have been defined as poor in their respective countries. In California, Starr was getting ready to give birth to her fourth child while living with the other three and her husband in a homeless shelter. In Cambodia, Neang was about to give birth to her third child and in Britain, Lisa was preparing for her second. The edits between these stories occasionally implied a kind of parity, as when you cut from Starr scavenging for empty cans in America to Neang's children gathering empty plastic bottles to earn enough money to eat in Cambodia. But it quickly became clear that poverty in one country would count as relative prosperity in another. "I don't live above my means, I'm just happy," said Lisa. In fact, Lisa didn't have any means of her own at all, only the state benefits that allowed her to think of herself as a model of modest self-reliance.
One thing was conspicuous, except in the US case history. Missing fathers. Neang's husband had beaten and abandoned her, one of the two men who had fathered Lisa's children had decided to outsource his responsibilities to the state and you didn't see men at all in Sierra Leone, apart from the volunteer obstetricians and nurses working at a local clinic. The contribution of those personal abdications to the poverty of the subjects wasn't really discussed though, or – apart from one statistic pointing out that only 17 per cent of Sierra Leonian women use contraception as opposed to 88 per cent in Norway – the possibility that reproductive control might be hugely important. Instead, we got a line saying, "There's enough money in the world. It's simply a question of redistributing it." True, perhaps. Simple, no. The film ended with births, the happiness of that moment coloured by the knowledge that these families' meagre resources had just been sliced a little thinner. And there was a darkly uncomfortable postscript. Neang's baby died two months after birth. Which meant that she could get a job on a construction site and her son could get the education he yearned for.
Stephen Fry: Gadget Man is an odd exploitation of its presenter's fabled passion for gizmos and doohickeys. "Consider me your knight in crumpled corduroy," he invites us at the beginning, which seems to hint at a role as consumer champion. But there's very little in the way of a buying guide to what follows, which is a larky meander round new technology products, roughly themed (this week) on commuting. Useful mostly as a reminder of how good Jonathan Ross can be when he just talks off the cuff, rather than fluffing celebrities on his chat show. But the opening montage suggests that Jeremy Clarkson also gets an invitation to appear as a guest. And for that there can be no excuse.
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