Last Night's TV: Too much time beating about the Bush

The Trillion Dollar Revolutionary: This World, BBC2; Exodus, Channel 4
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The Independent Culture

Whenever you start worrying that our home-grown politicians are addicted to the soundbite, you should compare the alternatives: the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, for example, whose weekly television address to the nation, which started as a 15-minute briefing, has become a rambling extravaganza typically three hours long. "He doesn't," as John Sweeney put it in The Trillion Dollar Revolutionary: This World, "half go on a bit," adding, puzzlingly, "you'd never guess he was a lefty." As sequiturs go, this is pretty non: not half going on a bit is firmly established as a speciality of left-wing leaders, Fidel Castro being outstanding in this respect; in any case, in the extract being played as Sweeney spoke, Chavez's every third word was "socialismo".

In itself, long-windedness is a venial sin; in Chavez's case, it matters a little more, for two reasons. First, all free-to-air broadcasters, television and radio, are compelled to carry his programme live. A Chavez supporter whom Sweeney met denied that this amounted to a limitation of freedom of speech - "We have no censorship," he said. But freedom of speech involves not simply allowing people to say what they like, but giving them ways to be heard saying it; in Venezuelan TV, it's hard to get a word in edgeways. (The fact that subscription channels are exempted from Chavez's speeches makes things worse: it means that only the rich are given real choice.)

The other reason it matters is that outside Venezuela there are many prepared to treat Chavez as a hero, because of his willingness to say rude things about George W Bush. This is, it has to be admitted, fun. We got him here speaking at the UN shortly after Bush, and claiming that the podium still smelt of sulphur; and Sweeney had footage of him calling Bush a "donkey" and "Mr Danger". In London, attitudes to Chavez have become an electoral issue. Mayor Ken Livingstone has accepted £15m of subsidised Venezuelan oil for London buses, in exchange for advising Caracas on its traffic problems. What advice Ken can offer beyond "Slap a congestion charge on 'em", I don't know; and while it's sound enough in my book, 15 million quid seems steep, especially when 60 per cent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line. Ken's Conservative challenger, Boris, has responded by pledging that if he gets the job, he won't be taking money off "dictators", and has called the arrangement "Ker-rackers". It's jokes such as that that make you appreciate humourless ideologues.

The seriousness of the issues, and their political relevance for Britain, gave Sweeney justification to investigate Chavez's record; but, as happens with Sweeney, the substantial questions were rather elbowed out of the way by entertainment and indignation. The low point came when Sweeney asked Chavez in person about the oil-for-London business. His lengthy question included a parenthetical description of Boris Johnson as looking like "a polar bear that's had an electric shock", coupled with an impression of how that might sound. Chavez's shrugging riposte, that the question was too stupid to answer, didn't seem as evasive as it should have. The concrete points are that Chavez has used Venezuela's oil wealth to improve education and health care and to push through land reforms; but he has done far less than he could have to renew the country's infrastructure and curb violence and corruption. In a 30-minute programme, the points could have been made far more forcefully; when it comes to not half going on a bit, Sweeney knows whereof he speaks.

Poverty and self-serving politicians aren't, of course, problems to which we are entirely immune over here; but we're possibly less susceptible than Exodus suggested. Penny Woolcock's film, supposedly a retelling of the biblical story of Exodus, was set in a future Britain, where a populist politician called Pharaoh Mann had confined the unwanted - immigrants, beggars, drug-addicts and petty criminals - to a vast ghetto, a disused amusement park called Dreamland. But Pharaoh's adopted son (no prize for guessing that his name is Moses) discovered that he was himself one of the dispossessed, and set about leading his people out of captivity.

In its derivation of dystopia from current trends, Exodus was simplistic and, to anybody who's read a moderate amount of science fiction, numbingly unoriginal (to be fair, Woolcock did have some top-notch sources, including Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers and Lindsay Anderson). If this had been made by almost anyone but Woolcock, I would have dismissed it as tripe; but because Woolcock has made such marvels as Tina Goes Shopping, I stuck with it. There were some rewards: a few visionary moments, the scurrying of speechless, feral children, the burning of a vast human figure (Antony Gormley's Waste Man, erected for the occasion in Margate last year); and some extraordinary performances from amateur actors. Woolcock's gift for getting amateurs to outshine professionals amounts to genius; but finding the right vehicle for her (and their) talents, is hard. Better luck, I fervently hope, next time.

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