Last Night's Television: Welcome to Lagos, BBC2, Outnumbered, BBC1
Rich pickings in the waste land
Friday 16 April 2010
In part one of the BBC2's new three-part documentary, Welcome to Lagos, we got a fascinating look at the enterprising and, at times, ingenious way in which a city's inhabitants respond to population explosion. Irritatingly, our narrator seemed determined to give us something else entirely. Surveying the rubbish-strewn landscape and day-to-day poverty of the city's working class, his rosy tones were full to bursting with pollyannarisms, like a tourist admiring the "quaintness" of foreign cultures. It was all so vibrant, he observed. Everything was there to inspire. I wonder what the programme's industrious stars, so determined to work themselves out of their current situations, would make of it all. Maybe they'd laugh and give up. If money makes you so enamoured with poverty, what on earth is the point of having it?
It didn't matter, in the end. Lagos had plenty to compensate, and watching the way of life was fascinating stuff in itself. And, in truth, last night wasn't without its uplifting moments. Watching Eric (nickname: "Slender") slogging his guts out as a "scavenger" on the Olusosun rubbish dump in order to fund his music career couldn't be anything but inspiring. It's especially so when we get to seem him, scavenging rags discarded in favour of "cool T-shirt", in the studio, recording his album. Inspiring, and endearing, but also a little tragic. Eric's life is one of permanent identity-shifting. His music-industry acquaintances know nothing of his toiling life on the dump. They just know Slender, self-styled hotshot, firmly en route to fame.
Equally stirring was the story of Joseph, who works on the dump "out of love for (his) family". "If there was somewhere even stinkier," he reflected. "I would go there. If it paid more." He marvels at the quality of the cast-offs he finds: a toasted-sandwich maker that functions fully, other bits and bobs that need but a tweak to get them going. How much the lucky waste. Joseph took us home, bursting with pride to meet his "beautiful wife" and "the future miss worlds", his daughters Peace and Patience. He was about to hold a birthday party for his youngest, and wanted the best on offer – cakes, sweets, toys, the lot – so had started working extra nights to pay for it. Talking of his own childhood made him cry, and he wants things to be different for them.
And there's no doubt that Lagos's growth (by 2015 it is predicted to be the third largest city in the world) has given rise to some phenomenal entrepreneurs. The dump itself was testimony to that: it's fully stocked with cafes, bars, mosques and even manicurists, should its inhabitants require them. According to our narrator, Olusosun and its 1,000 residents have managed to remain largely unknown to Lagos's 16 million inhabitants, a fact which, if true, is staggering. Still, while we might marvel at the ingenuity of its residents' business schemes, and admire their determined work ethic, it's impossible to get away from the gnawing poignancy of it all. Eric's big dreams all came rather horribly undone when, after a night out on the town to promote his record (ironically, he appeared to be on the verge of hitting the big time), he returned home only to get embroiled in a brawl. He wound up near-blinding his opponent and being thrown into the clink. He got off, fortunately, though only after borrowing thousands for a lawyer and an out-of-court settlement.
I saw Hugh Dennis once, carrying an enormous backpack and walking down Regent Street a few days before Christmas. Actually, I had to check to see if there were cameras following him, so much like his Outnumbered character, flustered dad-of-three Pete, did he appear. I think he caught my gawping, because he pulled that face he does on Mock the Week – lip curled, eyebrow up, face deadpan – so I looked away. Still don't know if there were cameras.
I get the impression this happens a lot. Because, after all, Outnumbered is a lot like real life. It's not the script that does it – that's good, though, like any of these two point four children sitcoms, a little cheesy too. No, it's the children. They don't seem to be acting at all. Take last night, when they thought they'd won half a million pounds from Reader's Digest. "We can buy school and close it down!" yelled Ben. "We could save the polar bears!" yelled Karen. On and on they went with their shopping list. Were they making it up as they went along? That's what it looked like. It's a little frightening, really. Children, I mean. They're monstrous, aren't they? Monstrous but also quite funny, especially for those of us who don't have them for real. It's a form of war tourism: look how Karen makes her granny squirm with her questions about weight! Isn't it awful? Thank god I don't have one. Phew.
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