Last Night's Television - The Frankincense Trail, BBC2, Benefit Busters, Channel 4

Now Kate makes perfect scents
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The Independent Culture

So what's Kate Humble up to now? Ah yes: The Frankincense Trail. An "epic journey" along an "epic trade route", which has been there since before the three wise men gave their gifts to Jesus. It's "epic" in case you hadn't registered. Gah. Enough with epic, already. It's worse than iconic. Seriously. Thankfully, Kate's a bit better than her scriptwriter. She soon drops the epic (or drops dropping it, as it were), becoming a lot less annoying in the process. Not annoying at all, in fact: she's rather lovely. The idea is to buy 90kg of frankincense – which costs Kate about $300 – and transport it to the West, selling it along the way to pay for the journey. Of course, that's not what it's really all about. The frankincense is just a vehicle, albeit a rather interesting one. What we're really getting is a look at the complex, varied sub- cultures of the Middle East.

Kate started out in Oman, but before long she was at the Yemeni border, fretting over whether or not she'll get in. Yemen, of course, is Very Dangerous Indeed, though it's difficult to believe looking at their border police. Oddly, they couldn't have been friendlier – even if they were a bit tight on the security front – thanking Kate for coming and providing her with a personal police escort. They went straight to Shibam, the world's first high-rise city, full of 10-story tower-blocks made – get this – out of mud, and then on to Aden, where among the dust and crowds of people, a statue of Queen Victoria still sits, incongruous as you like, atop her copper throne.

It was all fascinating, though even better is what happens just afterwards, when Kate & Co head to the desert and get to watch a bit of their local sport. Namely, camel-jumping. It was properly amazing: a sort of cross between the long jump and the high jump, but instead of sand or poles, there were camels, all lined up in a row. It is incredible when anyone manages to clear three – each camel is well over two meters tall – but when it reached the final, and they were jumping over five camels each, it was something else. They weren't even wearing shoes: they were barefoot, just running along in the sand, springing off nothing. Honestly, if you missed it, look up some of the videos on YouTube. It was astonishing.

We ended up in Saudi Arabia, where next week's show picks up. Something tells me things are about to get a lot more serious. Saudi Arabia may be the richest nation in the Middle East, but it's not so hot on women's rights. Suddenly, Kate was having to wear an abaya, a sort of black zip-up cloak, to cover herself up. She got to the airport (which, incidentally, looks a damn sight nicer than Heathrow) and, what do you know, she was the only woman around. She went to her car, and was asked to sit it in the back. Her guide insisted that Saudi women enjoy far more freedom than we think, but I'm not convinced. Sure, when Kate went to the shopping mall (which, amazingly, is full of brands I see down my local high street: Next, Aldo, you name it), the women said they can wear whatever they want... under their cloaks. It's not much of a choice, really, is it?

Mind you, they don't seem much happier in Hull. Women may be able to ride in the front seat but one thing's for sure: they're struggling for jobs. We're at A4E again, with the benefit busters, though there's no Hayley this week, more's the pity. Officious she may have been, but at least she appeared to care about her jobseekers. No such luck this time around in Benefit Busters, where the tutors seemed to be motivated primarily by the commission they can earn ("you've got to look after number one") and, inexplicably, spent most of their time giving their classes nursery-level arts and crafts to do.

Our hero last night was Mark, an ex-serviceman, expelled from the Army after he was caught with weed in his locker. He's been unemployed for over a decade, but is desperate to get back to work (though not care work as, "without being feminist or anything, care work's more for women, isn't it?").

Anyway, he found himself something that's "right up his street": landscape gardening, which he took to immediately. All went swimmingly, for about a month, anyway, when suddenly his hours were reduced to part-time. Apparently, this sort of thing goes on all the time. Companies take the unemployed off A4E's hands, then drop them, just like that.

It was a far bleaker picture than we got last week, though perhaps more significant for it. It seems perfectly clear that the system is deeply flawed. Yes, A4E finds people work (and hit their targets), but when contracts change a month into the job, it's difficult to see in what way the help is meaningful. If anything, jobseekers will – like Mark – just wind up even more disillusioned.

a.jarvis@independent.co.uk

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