Last Night's TV: They've got a place in the heart of England
The Poles Are Coming! BBC2; Bionic Woman, ITV2
Wednesday 12 March 2008
What a melting pot of immigration stereotypes The Poles Are Coming! proved to be. All the stock characters were there, though none of them in quite the roles a stalwart Little Englander would have assigned to them. There was, for example, the indignant local resident who was prepared to say that she believed immigration should be stopped completely and that "the way of life that British people use should be honoured". But her surname was Patel, which I'm guessing is a relatively recent arrival on the municipal rolls of Peterborough. Then there was the civic dignitary mounting a campaign for repatriation, arguing that soon there just wouldn't be enough jobs to go around for those arriving and that their native land needed their skills more. But his name was Bogdan and he'd come over to Peterborough from Gdansk, hoping to persuade some of his fellow countrymen to return in time to build the football stadiums for Euro 2012. And, finally, for those who like a narrative to obey the classical rules, there were the opportunistic types putting an unfair burden on the benefits system. It was just that they all appeared to be 20th-generation English, pasty-faced inheritors of a true-born Briton's right to ignore the facts in favour of a fetid bit of prejudice.
Tim Samuels, the presenter of the most jaunty contribution yet to BBC2's White season, went down to a Peterborough labour exchange to find out why the fields of Cambridgeshire were full of Eastern Europeans, with barely a British voice to be heard. The answer appeared to be indolence: "Nah... yer all right, mate," said a local churl when Samuels gave him the good news about the ready availability of agricultural work. "I'd prefer to sign on than do that." Another – in a brilliantly lateral variation on the old lament that immigrants were taking all the jobs – explained that he wasn't prepared "to work with a load of foreigners". "Makes you proud to be British, eh?" said Samuels ruefully as this specimen of the national genius slouched off down the road clutching his can of lager. Which wasn't exactly the point of these programmes, I thought, the White season having been commissioned to give a voice to those who feel dispossessed rather than expose them up as workshy oafs. It can't have been easy, though. Earlier in the film, Samuels appeared to have stumbled across a gold-standard example of native indignation when a passing motorist wound down his window to complain about how his neighbourhood had taken a nosedive in recent years. There'd been fly-tipping, street crime, vandalism. Then he spoiled it all by explaining that it was the English that caused most of the problems and the Poles were preferable as neighbours.
That the pace of Peterborough's changing population was causing problems was undeniable. A local worthy who had endured hate mail after offering homes to Ugandan Asians in the 1970s detailed the anxieties of some of his constituents, and a doctor and a headmaster confirmed how difficult it could be to deal with the sudden increase in workload, most of it complicated by a language barrier. In a GP's surgery, a tearful Russian mother had to communicate her daughter's problems through a dial-up translation service, all of which came at a cost to the surgery. On the streets, the police had to be accompanied by a Polish-speaking constable. Ignoring such changes, or dismissing those anxious about them as kneejerk racists, is a good recipe for turning a manageable awkwardness into a serious social problem. But even so, the overwhelming impression left by The Poles Are Coming! was not of British grievance but of the courage and nerve it takes to leave your family and language behind for the sake of a better future.
Talking of which, spare a thought for Michelle Ryan, who uprooted to Hollywood and learnt to speak American for the title role in Bionic Woman, only to have to come home again when the series was cancelled after just eight episodes. Knowing that, you wonder whether it's worth forming a relationship at all, but, don't worry, there's little danger that you will, because this is very soggy popcorn, murky and sombre in all the wrong ways.
After being broadsided by a truck (driven by a woman who looked suspiciously like Posh Spice), Michelle was rebuilt by her boyfriend in a top-secret lab. Despite the fact that she lost both her legs and was left hideously scarred by the crash, she seemed bizarrely resentful about her makeover, sulking about the place as if she was thinking of going on Rikki Lake, over the strapline "My boyfriend healed me without asking permission". Then she discovered that she's super-strong and can engage in rain-lashed rooftop chop-socky with another bionic woman, who is even more gloomy.
I suggest Michelle follows the advice given to her character when she escaped from the Wolf Creek Biotech Research Facility: "Go back to your life like none of this ever happened."
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