Last Night's TV - True Stories: The Battle for Barking, More 4; The Morgana Show, Channel 4; The Foods That Make Billions, BBC2
Right in the thick of it
Wednesday 01 December 2010
Do you want to understand the BNP or do you just want to hate them? Judging from Laura Fairrie's film
The Battle for Barking quite a few people think there's no point wasting time on comprehension. "You people are pieces of shit," said a passer-by to a group of canvassing BNP supporters, "And I wouldn't even wipe you off the bottom of my shoes." Relatively speaking, he was one of the politer ones too. Fairrie, on the other hand, did want to understand, and she got far enough inside Nick Griffin's electoral campaign, while tracking his attempt to win the party's first Parliamentary seat, to be flecked by some of the spittle that had been aimed at her subject. She was on first-name terms with several of the activists – admitted to BNP party meetings and allowed to ride along on leafleting drives – and the result was genuinely intriguing, a film that was never sympathetic to the cause but did achieve an empathy for the fears and resentments that had driven the BNP's supporters away from mainstream politics.
Fairrie was assisted in her tricky balancing operation by a substantial counterweight – Margaret Hodge, the sitting MP that Griffin was hoping to dislodge. Why had he chosen Barking for his big push, Fairrie asked Hodge: "Because he hates immigrants, he hates women and he hates Jews and I'm all three," she replied ruefully. And though Hodge was the incumbent, with a substantial party machine behind her, she also figured here as an underdog, up against ominous polling figures that seemed to suggest the Barking electorate were about to deliver a shock. She also lost her husband to a long illness in the lead up to the election, an event that played little part in the electoral politics but unquestionably helped to humanise her here. Nick Griffin had teared up as he announced his candidacy, moved by his own sense of manifest destiny. Hodge's tears, as she talked about her grief, came from a much deeper place.
The BNP were never ridiculed by the film, which didn't prevent them looking ridiculous of course. Rallying the troops for the big push, Richard Barnbrook, a BNP councillor in Barking and trusted Griffin lieutenant, indulged in a bit of bierkeller rhetorical style: "We cannot afford to lose! You must give your heart and you must fight five days a week!" he urged, prompting the thought that a battle for civilisation that breaks for the weekend isn't very likely to succeed. On the hustings, in a busy shopping street, Griffin was joined by a eccentric black man in a large hat, smiling broadly as he expressed his support for the party, and an inflamed chap in a dog collar. "Get out Gordon Brown!" shrieked the latter, "Stop pushing sodomy on children of seven!" The expression on Griffin's face suggested that he thought neither of them were exactly assisting the cause, but that he couldn't afford to ditch this meagre evidence of his party's broad appeal.
Hodge, meanwhile, was out on the doorsteps pitching hard for the "Anybody but the BNP" party, having wisely decided that it might be best to convert the election into a referendum on the acceptability of racism and compulsory repatriation. At one point, she even appeared to be suggesting to the black congregation of a local evangelical church that the BNP were planning to drop them from helicopters into the sea, though it's possible that a metaphor had just got out of hand in the excitement. Whatever she said, though, it worked because on election night, gratifyingly, the BNP lost everything – Griffin coming in a poor third and every BNP council seat disappearing. They can now add that defeat to the endless list of grievances that fuel their politics, but even the most paranoid of them couldn't legitimately say that Fairrie had stitched them up in her film. All the embroidery was do-it-yourself.
About 10 minutes in, The Morgana Show, a new comedy showcase for Channel 4, was going to get a really terrible review. The opening sketch – a gag about Boris Johnson at prep school – combined a weak impersonation with a silly and unfunny script. The Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minogue take-offs weren't much better and a sketch featuring Gilbert – a teenager with learning difficulties who stars in his own home-made television show – struck me as bullying in its comedy, the kind of television that will go down very well with callow 14-year-olds, but will make life absolute hell for any of their contemporaries unfortunate enough to wear bottle-bottom glasses. But then Morgana released the bully in me by doing a wickedly accurate impression of Fearne Cotton, a presenter who richly deserves all the mockery she can get. And I laughed at the running gag about Lady Gaga, glimpsed doing banal household tasks in wildly improbable costumes. By the end, I even laughed at Gilbert, thanks to the detail of Robinson's performance. But I'm not proud of myself.
"If you understand breakfast cereals you understand the modern food business," someone said at the beginning of The Foods That Make Billions. What there is to understand about cereals, it turns out, is that the ratio of nourishment to profit tilts heavily in favour of the latter, until someone gets furious enough about it to make the cereal companies behave better. And the fact that around 100 new cereals are launched every year in Britain alone suggests they're not being made to behave nearly well enough to discourage them. Enjoy your corn flakes... they've spent enough money persuading you to.
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