Last Night's Television: Why Poetry Matters, BBC2
Thursday 21 May 2009
You just have to hope that Bruce Parry wasn't planning something similar. Think about it: three months doing the research for "Tribe: Let's Party!" and then he finds out that Stefan Gates has beaten him to the concept with Feasts, in which Gates tours the world going to the most extravagant parties he can find. Not hedge-fund manager bashes in Marrakesh with Bruce Springsteen airlifted in for the cabaret (although there were shades of such cash-splashing here) but the kind of parties that have sufficient cultural pedigree to be able to call themselves festivals. Like Parry, Gates specialises in immersive reporting, and the voiceover suggested that he was hoping to pull off a kind of therapy/anthropology double with his new series: "He's hoping that he'll be able to conquer his inhibitions and get under the skin of people and cultures around the world". Quite why the people of the world should be helping a British food writer to loosen up I'm not sure, but they certainly seemed happy to give it a shot last night.
He began in Rajasthan, easing himself into the subject with a party that was an ambiguous hybrid of inherited tradition and private excess. The occasion was a Hindu wedding, but since the wedding was between two extremely wealthy families – the Sonthalias and the Mittals – the resulting reception was so extravagant that they had to have a temporary kitchen built just to feed the people working in the even bigger temporary kitchen that had been built to feed the guests. Though it was a love marriage everyone present was pretending that it wasn't, so as not to scandalise the pious old ladies for whom the helpful amalgamation of the families' steel and manufacturing interests was a far more seemly rationale for lifelong partnership. The whole affair – an elaborate display of generosity and humility on the part of her family – ended with the bride's relations feeding the groom's family by hand, a tradition that might well prove incendiary if adopted at the traditional British wedding.
Gates's next do was an even bigger affair, and a lot less exclusive, part of the point of the Keralan Onam feast being that everyone, whatever their religion or caste, is invited to join in. Apparently, Onam is a Potemkin village kind of affair, a blow-out intended to persuade the legendary King Mahabali – out of the underworld on annual parole – that his people are still living in a paradise of peace and prosperity. And one has to say that it looked a much jollier business than the Rajasthan wedding, lacking the strained terror of imminent social disaster that often accompanies weddings. There was a lot of feasting off banana leaf plates, with local temples competing to outdo each other in generosity. Gates also took part in the Pulikali, or tiger dance, stripping down to a jaunty pair of orange boxers so that his torso could be painted as a tiger's face. He claimed to be the first foreigner ever to take part in this ceremony, and his presence had stirred up a modest media frenzy, since what he lacked in belly and man-boobs (useful for creating the tiger's snout and bulging eyes) he more than made up for with the pallor of his face. I don't know whether he felt he'd got under the skin of the locals, but they came very close to getting under his, after the official paint-stripper got too drunk to perform his duties and Gates's thick coat of emulsion paint had to be rubbed off with kerosene and more friction than looked entirely comfortable. I think Bruce Parry may be muttering as he watches, but it's an amiable kind of travelogue for the rest of us.
Why Poetry Matters was an ambitious kind of title and a quixotic one. People to whom poetry already does matter don't need the fact explaining to them, and those to whom it doesn't aren't very likely, I would have thought, to be converted by Griff Rhys Jones insisting that it isn't "pansy and irrelevant". Indeed, the thought occurred that if poetry really did matter (in terms that television would comprehend) then they wouldn't have had a celeb comedian presenting the programme. It got up my nose very early – when Griff skipped through a patch of daffodils, parodying the Fotherington-Thomas attitude to poetry – and then it stayed there, undislodgeable, for the next 50 minutes. There was a brief flair of resistance to its lowest-common-denominator sugar-coating from Andrew Motion ("So what if it's difficult! Everything that is worth anything in life is difficult") and a touching moment when Rhys Jones read Ben Jonson's poem to his dead son – My First Sonne – and his throat thickened with the emotion of the lines. But about 95 per cent of the energy and invention went on thinking of ways to make us forget that it was about poetry at all, which seemed a curious way to promote the art form's virtues.
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