The Weekend's Television: When you're better off red
The Lost World of Communism, Sat, BBC2
The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Sun, BBC1
Monday 16 March 2009
The Lost World of Communism, the first of a three-part series about everyday life behind the Iron Curtain, began with some clips from The Sandman, a dreary-looking children's cartoon that was designed to "transmit class consciousness and feelings of solidarity".
Happy, smiling children were taken for rides in the Sandman's flying machine, soaring over a socialist paradise full of happy, smiling people and an awful lot of East German flags. And then, just when you were getting lulled by this peculiarly sugary form of propaganda, they let you know what happened to children who didn't toe the party line. Returning to school on the first day after the war, 14-year-old Erika Riemann found that Hitler's picture had gone and had been replaced by one of Stalin. Thinking that he looked a little glum, she added lipstick to it. "That wasn't a good move," said Erika, in something of an understatement. "I never wanted to be an artist again in my life." She was sentenced to 10 years in prison, several of which were spent in former Nazi concentration camps, where she was repeatedly raped by the guards.
Not everyone regretted the arrival of socialism. Frank Schöbel, East Germany's Cliff Richard (there's a thought to generate an involuntary shudder), did reasonably well out of the regime, as did his one-time wife Chris Doerk, a Dawn French lookalike who made some distinctly sour comments about the vapidity of modern Western entertainment. "Art and culture had a much higher value on them then," she said, though judging from the clips of the grim East German musical she'd starred in, what she really meant by this was "I was in steady employment and had a nice flat". But ostalgie, a Proustian wistfulness about the good old days when the waiting list for a Trabant was longer than a teenager's jail sentence, wasn't only expressed by the regime's beneficiaries. Throughout this compressed history of the GDR, it flickered away in some of its victims too, sad that a spirit of social cohesion had gone with the Berlin Wall. Since this intimacy frequently concealed betrayal, as in the case of a punk musician who discovered that his best friend and lead guitarist had been selling him out to the Stasi, you couldn't help but feel they were grieving for something that was better off dead.
There were no shortages of victims either. Ursula Rumin, who had body-swerved from a career as a cabaret dancer into scripting uplifting films about women in boiler suits, was sentenced to 15 years' hard labour in Siberia, after being kidnapped off the street and accused of espionage. Ursula's tale of suffering was mildly undercut by her confession that she had actually been a low-level British spy, but if your sense of the state's arbitrary cruelty was a little diminished by that revelation, your impression of its stupidity only increased. Ursula was a born honeytrap when she was younger, and far too useful, one would have thought, to be wasted on Siberian mosquitoes. It wasn't that the Stasi was prudish, either. Its production of amateur pornography, most of it filmed without the consent of participants, was considerable, and The Lost World of Communism revealed that the GDR's bureaucracy even found room for a stripper licensing department, this particular form of entertainment being popular at party plenary sessions. They had a tape of Heidi Wittwer performing her successful audition for a licence, which gained her access to the much-improved form of state socialism enjoyed by party bigwigs. "There were some great things about East Germany," she said. The only problem being that only a handful of the population got access to them. The programme was terrific, incidentally, a useful reminder of just how appalling compulsory utopias can be.
I found myself much less sure about The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, now back for a series after last year's pilot. There's undoubtedly room in the schedules for a gently meandering detective series, in which the drama centres on missing dogs and fraudulent dentists, rather than pathological serial killers and autopsy tables piled high with intestines. And Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose are fun as the heroine and her stiff-backed assistant. And, yes, it's heartening to see an African location as the site of something other than war or humanitarian disaster. But I just can't feel easy about the whiff of condescension in the comedy, the way in which lack of sophistication underwrites so many of the laughs. It isn't that the drama can't do nuance, because it cuts into the major-chord brightness of the thing with several blue-note touches. But it never quite allows its characters to be knowing or self-mocking, all those attributes we associate with adulthood. It is utterly well-meaning, but I predict we'll look back at it in 30 years' time and mutter, "What could they have been thinking!"
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