Television review: Cuba with Simon Reeve, BBC2; Last Tango in Halifax, BBC1

Last Night's Viewing

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The Independent Culture

The condition of the Cuban economy was quite nicely illustrated by Cecilia’s bedroom, a relatively spacious Havana interior but for the robust timber scaffolding that is currently holding the ceiling in place. For many decades the fiscal equivalent of those home-made pit props were the generous subventions from the former soviet Union, who were happy to buy sugar at inflated prices in order to maintain a thorn in Uncle Sam’s shoe.

So, although the American trade embargo created the economic equivalent of a near permanent downpour, everything stayed dry inside. But then, as was pointed out in Cuba with Simon Reeve, the Soviets stopped the fraternal subsidies and the rain started to get in.

Now, acknowledging the weather for the first time in years, Raul Castro has loosened the state’s grip on local enterprise and reeve was visiting the island before time ran out to see it as it used to be.

His film started with a kind of check list of Cuban television clichés: Fifties cars bucketing through the potholed streets, locals with stogies the size of drainpipes, waves breaking over the Malecon and Havana’s crumbling stucco.

We also got fairly boilerplate stuff about the “world-class health system” and the splendour of the Ballet Nacional, before Reeve reminded us that dissent wasn’t permitted in Cuba and that he’d only been allowed in on condition that he didn’t meet known dissidents.

In the end, he didn’t really need to. No one said a word against the current government, but the ordinary details of daily life he filmed offered a steady, wordless rebuke to the dream of a centrally planned economy.

It wasn’t just Cecilia’s roof either, but the fact that the genial plumbing-supplies salesman he met on the street (everything including the kitchen sink) was supplementing his income as a qualified doctor.

With the state about to embark on its own austerity cuts in public services, the possibility that some workers will be able to top up their earnings while simultaneously contributing extra revenue to the state coffers means that economic liberalisation is probably irreversible. And, judging from Reeve’s film, the Cuban people appear to have taken to entrepreneurship with some zeal.

Everywhere he went, he found small enterprises starting out on the long haul to become big ones. Havana’s equivalent of Foxtons was Acaena, a young woman who was absolutely thrilled to be doing her bit to build Cuba’s youthful housing market (“I said to myself, ‘no more selling cheese for me’,” she said, recalling the thrill of her first commission.)

And its equivalent of McDonald’s, currently open in one outlet only, was La Pachanga, a thriving burger bar that already had a branded mascot and a VIP area (it has air conditioning and disco lighting). Whether Cuba will find it to be an unmixed blessing having their own equivalents of Foxtons and McDonald’s is another matter altogether, but Reeve fairly persuasively made his case that if you want to see the Cuba of the old tourist clichés you had better go soon.

I have caught up with Last Tango in Halifax a bit late, and, on the evidence of last night’s episode, I’m having a little difficulty seeing what all the fuss has been about.

It’s undemanding and warm-hearted, true, and it makes a change to have a drama centred on an older couple. but I’m not convinced that saying “reet” or “’appen” now and then really turns Derek Jacobi into a convincing Yorkshireman and whatever its leads do to overturn stereotypes of the old is surely counterbalanced by Alan’s “comedy geezer” friends maurice and Harry.

It also does not, to put it mildly, stick to Larry David’s Law, which decrees “no hugging, no learning”. There are passages when Last Tango in Halifax appears to consist of little else, animosities and ancient grudges melting away with every clinch. And there’ll be a lot more hugging before it’s over. Alan has “a twinge”.