Last Night's TV - Ross Kemp: Battle for the Amazon, Sky1; Blood, Sweat and Luxuries, BBC3; Great Ormond Street, BBC2
Hard man shows his deeper side
Wednesday 21 April 2010
Forget about endangered rainforest – what Ross Kemp's fans really want to see is an endangered celebrity. Those are the money shots in his films, after all, the sequence in which he hits the dirt in Helmand as a bullet whizzes past the camera lens or the moment when the barrio gang suddenly turns threatening. On the face of it,
Ross Kemp: Battle for the Amazon wasn't likely to supply quite the same level of personal hazard. True, Stephen Fry broke an arm when he went there for Last Chance to See, but it was the kind of accident that might have happened in Kew Gardens. I'm happy to report, then, that the producers had secured a geographically specific brush with death to enliven Kemp's point-to-point of Amazonian ecological black spots. As a light plane revved its engines for take-off from a tiny jungle strip, Kemp explained that they had already made one aborted attempt to get airborne. The camera stayed on his face for the second, and it looked very much as if he was attempting to lift the aircraft into the air with his own sphincter muscles. "Fucking hell!" he breathed out, as the plane finally clawed its way into the air, foliage fluttering from its undercarriage, "I'm getting too old to do this".
It's the strangest apotheosis this – from soap opera heavy to geezerish special correspondent – but it works, and it was interesting to see the leverage of his popularity being applied here to something besides vicarious danger. "I'm certainly no environmentalist," Kemp had conceded at the beginning of the programme, but he travelled with an environmentalist's agenda, visiting places where the friction between human need and ecological status quo had generated open sores in the landscape. In Ecuador, he looked at the lasting damage caused by the oil industry, including a heaving lagoon of dumped crude that was so noxious that it made his eyes water. In the United States, Kemp explained, jabbing at the quagmire with a stick, this kind of dumping had been made illegal in 1939. So much more convenient when you can outsource your environmental crime to another country entirely. And in all the facets of deforestation Kemp covered – logging, gold-mining and ranching – he properly made it clear that our appetites and demands were just as culpable as those of people trying to make a subsistence living, if not more so. "We are not the only ones responsible for destroying the planet," said a Brazilian rancher, pointing out that being lectured on self-restraint by nations that already have more than enough is a bit rich. We don't just dump the waste oil in their back yard. We dump our bad conscience as well.
Our sometimes wilful indifference to the connection between developed-world consumption and developing-world conditions is also the subject of Blood, Sweat and Luxuries, the third series for a really effective bit of popular current affairs. The participants on this trip don't entirely seem to have grasped the essential Blood, Sweat recipe. What's required of the young people signing up to immerse themselves in the working lives of the developing-world poor is airheaded ignorance, whining self-pity and petulant bad manners. This can then be implicitly rebuked by the stoicism and grace of their desperately poor hosts. In this case – barring a couple of ill-conceived moments of condescension – the Brits were respectful and impressively determined to do their best. But while the hissy-fit quotient was markedly lower than in earlier series, the film still delivered a bracing collision between Western expectations and the bottom-rung existence that many people have to endure. The lifestyle tourists found themselves first in Madagascar, billeted on sapphire miners living in a one-road shanty-town and going to work in an astonishing inverted ziggurat of a mine, excavated by methods King Solomon would have recognised. Not all of them lasted the course, but given the chain-gang conditions that was hardly surprising, and when they failed they had the grace to acknowledge that it might have a consequence for those they were working alongside. They also hastily backtracked on their first glib self-portraits. "I don't think I'm spoiled," said Lucy, a Harrogate trustafarian in the opening credits, but it was precisely the word she used about herself after she'd failed to descend the nightmarishly claustrophobic mine shaft one local had dug in the floor of his own living room. Private enterprise like that means that you get a bigger cut when you make a good find but have to take a risk that you won't find anything at all. After several days' work that particular consortium had earned the equivalent of about 75 pence a day, rather less than the minimum wage earth-movers up at the European-owned mine.
Great Ormond Street has been about a different kind of injustice – the discrepancy between the health-rich and those born to scrape their way through lives with ailing organs, kidneys in the last episode of Simon Gilchrist's series, which has been distinguished by the attention it paid to the limits of medical expertise. This film tiptoed around the question of whether the cure can be worse than the disease, not because it was in any way evasive but because nobody involved wants to rest any weight on the question. Parents yearn for a cure and daren't admit that death might be better. And doctors honour the hopes of people that they've often got to know very well indeed, all the time knowing that hope is strictly limited.
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