Last Night's Viewing: Welcome to India, BBC2
DCI Banks, ITV1
I imagine that the new director-general has more pressing priorities at the moment than the issue of soundtrack music on documentaries but perhaps once he's succeeded in establishing that the BBC wasn't an island of sexual predation in a sea of new-man decorum, he could have a junior executive address this oddly vexing aspect of television production.
It comes up a lot in correspondence, mostly because many viewers find it overpowering the speech elements of programmes but also, occasionally, because it effectively vandalises the programme it is supposed to be enhancing. A good place to start these enquiries might be Welcome to India, a completely engrossing series in some regards but also marred by the most bizarre choice of music I've encountered for months. It's hard to imagine that it could have been much less suitable if the tracks had been chosen by a hen pecking at a touchscreen.
Such judgements are subjective, naturally, but the inappropriately jaunty music that has featured in both episodes so far aggravates another anxiety about the series, which is a narration of often discomfiting cheerfulness. The films depict life in the slums of Mumbai and Kolkata and seem determined to present this often desperate and hand-to-mouth existence as an exemplary triumph of the human spirit, rather than an instance of social injustice. The strategy is not impossible to defend, particularly when it's backed up by the resilience and cheerfulness of some of the people who feature in the film. But it is also at odds with important elements of their life as well, and employs a third-person plural voice that falsely enlists everyone in the same act of willed chirpiness. "Over one in six of the world live here," said the voiceover at the beginning, "and you know what? We are thriving on it."
Define "we" and define "thriving", I thought sardonically. True, Johora, a woman who earns a living recycling plastic bottles, seemed very upbeat about her plans to expand the business. She also showed the camera her private toilet with evident pride and didn't dwell on the fact that she'd had to pay off local gangsters to get it installed. But Johora was doing pretty well, relatively speaking. Others who appeared in last night's film were clinging far more precariously to existence, a fact the programme addressed with characteristic can-do spirit: "It's true we Indians don't have your unemployment benefits," the voiceover noted philosophically, "but search the city and there is always work available if you want it badly enough."
You'd surely have to want it very badly indeed to work in Mohammed's off-grid rendering plant, boiling down beef suet into tallow for the cosmetics industry and fighting to keep the maggots out of the finished product. Or to take a job in one of India's ship-breaking yards, places in which the phrase "safety record" can only be used with dark sarcasm. The truth is that life on the fringes of India's cities is very tough and very unforgiving, and frequently distinguished by a dog-eat-dog ruthlessness in which the money travels from the powerless to the powerful. Recognising the humanity and the qualities of those at the very bottom is important, but there are times in Welcome to India when the humane determination not to turn these individuals into a mere political problem comes close to implying that there isn't a political problem at all. And the music is just unforgiveable.
In DCI Banks, Stephen Tompkinson plays pretty much to type – that is, he looks cross, or exasperated or as if he's suffering from a nasty case of heartburn, according to what variety of weltschmerz the scene requires. Caroline Catz plays against type as a control-freak DI who snaps at her underlings and gets tetchy when rules are broken. Impressively, you almost forget how gorgeous she is. The drama itself fills the gap between 9pm and 10pm almost exactly.
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