Primark: On the Rack, BBC1
Jews – The Next Generation, BBC4
British B-Movies: Truly Madly Cheaply, BBC4
Under-age garment workers, second generation Holocaust survivors ...thank goodness for a romp through Sixties zom-rom-coms
Sunday 29 June 2008
It was a good old-fashioned exposé. We might have hoped for a good, modern exposé, but nevertheless, Panorama, Primark: On the Rack was a powerful programme. It showed us sights we never wanted to see, curdling our pleasure in fast, cheap fashion. It even sparked a demonstration outside the Primark store on Oxford Street, the first time since I've been reviewing TV that a programme has caused a placard-waving turn-out that wasn't confused, hysterical and Big Brother-related.
Panorama reporter Tom Heap's undercover exploits started gently. Forbidden from filming in his local Primark store, he captured its wall-printed Ethical Disclaimer ("This company is committed to monitoring and progressively improving the conditions of the people who make products for Primark") on his trusty camera phone. Then, to test its claims, he followed the production trail back to India's Textile Valley, Tirupur, where he posed as a fashion buyer looking for cheap labour. With considerable courage – journalists on similar missions have been beaten up by sweatshop chiefs – he won their trust and secretly filmed them as they jostled to impress him with the dexterity, speed and youthfulness of their workers. His staff included "talented" children of 10 or 11, said one.
And then we saw the killer footage: small children in a refugee camp sewing clothes marked with the Primark label, Atmosphere. "Just keep quiet and get on with the work, little boy," said a manager in whom the spirit of Gradgrind was strong.
These were not approved Primark workers, but the employees of employees: out-of-control subcontractors. Primark declared itself "betrayed" and sacked them all, pronto. While this is good news for the industry long-term, it is not likely to be the best outcome for the child labourers we saw on film. Panorama wheedled its way into their workplace, and put them out of a job. The programme's heroism made them victims twice over. As the show finished, with a muddled message to shoppers – don't cripple Tirupur industry by boycotting Primark, just, you know, show Primark you care about workers' rights – you were left feeling that Panorama had rushed in where angels fear to tread. (Angels, and Channel 4, whose documentary The Devil Wears Primark was stalled for "editorial reasons".) The Panorama planners hadn't gone further than the first steps on the flowchart. Go to India. Find corruption. Show corruption. And then?
As I said, this was a good old-fashioned exposé. It adhered to the traditional remit of news programmes: pose problems, not solutions; show action, not consequences. By following that narrow formula, this edition of Panorama was hardly panoramic.
Vanessa Engle's documentary series Jews began the week before last with a film about the Haredi Jews of Stamford Hill, which was like starting an account of Christianity with the Mormons. The Haredi won't have seen it as they don't believe in televisions, but it was a laboured and tangential film.
However, episode two, The Next Generation, was essential viewing, a wide-reaching, subtle investigation of the "psychological stain" on the children of Holocaust survivors. Each case was fascinatingly different. Some had parents who disguised their Jewishness; one had a mother who obsessively researched the Holocaust; another grew up with seven locks on her front door. Overall, the film caught something intangible, delicate and fugitive: it was a portrait of a state of mind.
Thank goodness for Matthew Sweet's British B-Movies: Truly Madly Cheaply – a delightfully light-hearted yet scholarly romp through the archives, from the quota quickies of the 1930s to the zom-rom-coms of the 1960s. Particularly satisfying were Sweet's asides ("Look at the roundels on that spaceship") and his interviews with surviving cast members. "How do you feel watching that?" he asked Nicky Henson of his role in Psychomania, a lurid vampire biker movie co-starring Beryl Reid. "Ashamed," he replied. The head of Primark couldn't have put it better.
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