The Weekend's TV: Holiday Hijack, Sun, Channel 4
Sugartown, Sun, BBC1
A dose of reality is just the ticket
Monday 25 July 2011
I don't know what the participants in Holiday Hijack thought they were signing up for, but if they were genuinely surprised by the sudden change in their travel plans after a day of luxury the working title must have been something like "Yes, There Is Such a Thing As a Free Lunch".
You'd ask a few questions, wouldn't you, if Channel 4 pitched up and said "we'll pay for you to take a five-star holiday in a tropical location"? "What's the catch?", for one. And if you didn't it would suggest either breathtaking vanity on your part, or a stupefying lack of curiosity. To be honest, you couldn't entirely rule out the latter with Louise and Natalie, Dan and Alex – four representatively solipsistic hedonists who were first up for Channel 4's culture-shock therapy. They thought (notionally at least) that they were going to be pampered and cosseted. In fact, just one day in to their stay in The Gambia they were pulled out of their gulag of indulgence and sent to live with a local family.
BBC Three has done this kind of thing quite a lot – rubbing the noses of spoiled Westerners in the bracing Third World realities that underpin their pleasures, and the genre has a number of fixed requirements that Channel 4's version efficiently ticked off. There must be flagrant bad behaviour initially, followed by ordeals of heat, odour and primitive plumbing and then finally a welter of tears, as those taking part sob out a hymn of praise to the exemplary courage of those they've been billeted on. And, as you may just be able to detect, it's easy to become a little cynical about the format and its glib moral instruction. Except, of course, that the moral instruction is necessary and not everyone is going to get it by buying a subscription to the New Internationalist.
The four guinea pigs began by establishing their credentials as unthinking exploiters, encouraged to talk up their dependence on room service and their exacting standards of hygiene and comfort. One of them was seen, shortly after arrival, quizzing the front desk about whether the beach towels were Egyptian cotton, which I don't believe for a moment is her routine practice on arriving at a new resort. What's she planning to do if they're not? Check out again? Never mind; this little pantomime satisfactorily established her as a spoiled princess, the better to contrast with the contrite and ethically aware Cinderella into which she was about to be transformed. And then, just as they were winding down on the sun loungers after filming some establishing shots, their host, Bella, arrived.
The next bit is always quite hard to watch, since it involves polite and hospitable people having their hospitality cast back into their face. "No! No!" shrieked one of the women when they were shown Bella's family bathroom – a selection of buckets alongside a clean but seat-less lavatory (facilities which could quite easily have been the pride of the neighbourhood). And when it turned out that they would have to eat with their hands from a communal dish, like many ordinary Gambians, there was a giggling attempt at tact so hamfisted that open insult would probably have been preferable: "We had a big lunch... don't know what my excuse is going to be tomorrow". It was shameful, as were the fastidious hissy fits Dan threw when he was asked to help at the local fish market. All that was necessary, though, in order to give them something to be ashamed of later – when they weepily realise that their priorities might be a little awry. And, however confected the early sections are, the acts of penitence still look reasonably genuine and there's something touching about the tearful farewells in the final act. But I do hope the host family got a very generous fee for supplying social enlightenment to their guests instead of a mint on the pillow.
I cannot for the life of me work out why BBC1 are transmitting a children's programme at 10.25pm on a Sunday, though it's hard to see Sugartown as anything else, so guileless is its plotting and so jauntily empty of threat are its characterisations. It's the kind of big ensemble drama where comic pizzicato is in heavy demand on the soundtrack and the challenges of life are framed as a kind of gang-show, with everyone pulling together to triumph over adversity. It isn't a terrible children's programme, incidentally, if that's what you want to watch. It's set in a run-down Yorkshire seaside town named in honour of its biggest local employer, a rock and confectionery factory that has seen better days. One brother (the good boy) struggles to keep the factory going; another (the sexy bad one) plans to sell it off to finance a casino. There's also a rivalry over a pretty girl, a long-lost orphan, and an attempt to relaunch a dance academy, which will allow for the occasional disco-backed chorus-line number. If you think that ageing hippies say things like "Let me stir-fry something into your think-wok, Ken", then you may find it an acute and heartwarming study of community solidarity under pressure. If you're not convinced by that line you might want to steer clear, because there are quite a lot of others like it, as well as boilerplate stuff such as "Everything's just a game to you isn't it? Who cares whether you break a heart or two along the way?" Cocoa for the mind, I think.
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