Last Night's TV - The World's Worst Place to Be Gay, BBC3; The Beauty of Books, BBC4
To the heart of the matter
Tuesday 15 February 2011
The former motor-racing commentator Murray Walker, in a previous life as a Mad Men-style advertising executive, albeit in London rather than New York, was once handed the Trill budgerigar seed account, which admittedly is not very Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, although the great Don Draper himself would have been impressed by the way Walker went about increasing Trill's business.
The company already had 90 per cent of the budgie food market, so Walker realised that his challenge was to expand the market, which he did by commissioning some research showing that budgies are sociable creatures. He then coined the poignant slogan "An only budgie is a lonely budgie". Budgerigar sales duly went through the roof, causing widespread chirpiness in the Trill boardroom.
In a way, the folk making television programmes in 2011 confront the opposite problem to the one that confronted Murray Walker and Trill all those years ago: a finite number of consumers, but an ever-expanding number of competitors. They too, though, look to words to gain them an advantage in a crowded marketplace. There's a new three-part BBC2 series called Toughest Place to Be a ..., which on Sunday began with paramedics, and last night BBC3 offered The World's Worst Place to Be Gay. How do you get more people to watch your documentary? Give it a teasing title, clearly intended to grab floating viewers by piquing their interest. Gosh, where could it be, the world's worst place to be gay? Afghanistan? China? North Korea? Tunbridge Wells?
It turns out to be Uganda, at least according to the Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills, who is himself gay. He went to Kampala and indeed found plenty of depressing evidence of institutionalised homophobia, and this was before the murder last month of the Ugandan gay-rights activist David Kato. Africa generally is becoming a dangerous place to be openly gay – no fewer than 37 African countries have declared homosexuality illegal – but Uganda is evidently the most dangerous, with a prominent politician called David Bahati championing legislation – bluntly called the Anti-Homosexuality Act – which would introduce life imprisonment for people found "guilty" of same-gender sex, and the death penalty for "serial offenders".
If only this represented the ranting of a right-wing zealot, out of step with public opinion. In fact, Mills found perfectly bright schoolchildren who are likewise of the view that homosexuality is an "abomination", and met a newspaper editor who insisted that it reduces the human lifespan by 24 years. A young lesbian told him that she had been raped in an attempt to cure her of her orientation, yet far from curing her, the rape left her pregnant and HIV-infected.
All this is a relatively recent phenomenon, apparently visited upon Africa by the growing influence there of American evangelists. And where angry shouting doesn't work, glib humour is deployed. "In the beginning it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," offered a panellist on a phone-in radio show.
Trying to tackle this bigotry was obviously going to be well beyond Mills and his producer Chris Alcock (whose end-credit, though I probably shouldn't admit it, at least generated a smile at the conclusion of what was otherwise a thoroughly disheartening hour of television). But I'd like to have seen them try a little harder to state the case for tolerance and rationality. Instead, our engaging presenter's tactic was mainly to throw up his hands in horror, and turn to the camera for solidarity.
He was also, I think, rather disingenuous in presenting modern Britain as the antithesis of Uganda. In many ways it is, but it's not as though homophobia is unknown here, nor is it so many years since David Copeland let off his murderous nail-bomb in Old Compton Street. Still, this was a brave and enlightening documentary, almost too brave for its own good, in fact, because it concluded with an interview with the witchfinder-general himself, the appalling Bahati, during which our man admitted to being gay. The interview was abruptly terminated, and Mills was lucky to escape the country, if not so much with his life, then certainly with the tapes. We should all be glad that he, and they, made it safely home.
In using the term witchfinder-general, incidentally, I realise that I am invoking the past to convey the depravity of the present, which is not always fair. The word "medieval", for example, is often used pejoratively, yet The Beauty of Books showed just how wrong this is, focusing on two masterpieces in particular, the Luttrell Psalter (written between 1330 and 1345, which sounds like a very short time frame indeed, but maybe I'm too much in thrall to the 24-hour clock) and The Canterbury Tales, as evidence that medieval Britain, while clearly not much fun for the poor and dispossessed, was also a hotbed of extraordinary creativity.
Explaining all this was a marvellous collection of intellectuals, not so much talking heads as talking big heads, one of whom used the word "phantasmagoria" as effortlessly as I might use the word budgerigar. Of course, it's worth reminding ourselves that we only have to travel back 70 years or so, to Nazi Germany, to find a culture where folk like them, along with homosexuals, were routinely murdered. Neither Africa, nor the distant past, have a monopoly on state-sanctioned lunacy.
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