Last Night's Television - Revenge of the Binmen, Channel 4; Grow Your Own Drugs, BBC2
Right on the tipping point
Tuesday 03 March 2009
Last Thursday I was driving along the A4440 outside Worcester when someone in the car in front of me tossed a carton out of the window. Since we were both travelling at around 50mph I registered my outrage in the only way I could, by flashing my lights and tooting my horn like a madman. All too predictably I got a raised middle finger in reply, and recount this dispiriting episode here only because of the irony of it happening on the outskirts of Worcester, which of all Britain's cities, it emerged in Cutting Edge's
Revenge of the Binmen, is the least tolerant of litter.
Worcester's ferocious crackdown on litter is implemented to a bizarrely large degree by a single council employee, Alan Price, who has dished out 80 per cent of all the penalty notices served. Good for him, I say, even if his detection technique, like your average binbag, is not watertight. When he finds a bag of rubbish where it ought not to be he rifles through it, picks the leftover baked beans or used teabags off a jettisoned letter or envelope until he can make out an address, then heads there to dispense his own brand of justice, Tidy Alan rather than Dirty Harry.
But he was not the only hero of Hilary Clarke's film. We also met a fellow called Ian, in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, who got so fed up with binmen refusing to take away his rubbish on account of it containing garden waste that he dragged it down to the council offices and chucked it all over the reception area, a defiant gesture that cost him a £475.20 fine and a criminal record likely to wreck his plans to become a teacher.
Perhaps he'd have been better advised keeping his indignation in check, but then he wouldn't have ended up on telly. Folk love being on telly, and the more self-important they are, the more they love it. In Farnborough, a pompous, self-styled Robespierre called Keith tried to whip up rebellion against the council's plans to replace big wheelie bins with smaller wheelie bins. Keith was retired from a job that he declined to divulge, on the basis that, with a small enigmatic smile, "you'd have to have very high security clearance to know what it was". Maybe he was once the head of MI5, except that a former head of MI5 would know that you can't start a revolution in Hampshire.
Still, if anything drives the British to the barricades, it will probably be wheelie bins. In the Ribble Valley, the people's beef is that there are too many of them, not that they aren't big enough. "That's Jerusalem Hill down there, where the Knights Templars stopped on their way to the Crusades," one man said, I think making the point that a place of great historical significance should not be wheelie-binned to the nines. On the other hand, there must have been at least one Knight Templar with a Lancashire accent, who reappeared in the area after five years in the Holy Land and told his disbelieving friends, "no, honestly, I weely bin."
If that's a contrived gag, and it is, then it is not altogether out of place, because Clarke's film was entertaining but a little over-manufactured. The only binman interviewed was a bright spark called Lee, who likes to quote Aristotle, the message evidently being that we shouldn't jump to conclusions about the men who carry our rubbish away. There is pride and even philosophy in those wagons.
I wasn't sure, however, what the overall point was of Revenge of the Binmen, except to say that rubbish is a highly emotive issue, which we knew already. Maybe Clarke's intention was simply to give us some snapshots of what the documentary-making classes like to refer to, pejoratively, as Middle England. There was certainly some good provincial xenophobia in there, with Alan, our penalty notice-toting hero in Worcester, pointing out with a meaningful look that there were a lot of eastern Europeans on his beat and there "is no actual word in Polish for 'recycle'". Let the Poles carry the can, then. And just watch as they drop it in the gutter.
A large part of Britain's refuse problem, of course, is the burgeoning mountain of unnecessary packaging with which we must all grapple. In Grow Your Own Drugs, the ethnobotanist James Wong showed one way of dealing with solving the problem: don't go shopping. Not, at any rate, for cough mixtures, or stuff to stop insomnia, or facial washes, or laxatives, all of which can be sourced in the garden and the hedgerow.
Wong's series is perfectly timed: beat the recession by making your own remedies. He has a wry sense of humour, too. His home-made syrup of figs, intended to cure constipation, was a deep brown soup which "actually looks a bit like its desired outcome". If that was the outcome I'd rather stay constipated, but never mind. Young, smart and highly telegenic, Wong looks like a star in the making.
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