Tribal Wives, BBC2
Dickens' Secret Lover, Channel 4
Money Programme Special – Bill Gates: How a Geek Changed the World, BBC2
A workaholic with a traumatic childhood searches for answers among a remote tribe in Panama
Sunday 22 June 2008
After two minutes of Tribal Wives we know quite a lot about Sass. She's 34, from Oxford, a workaholic who gets an hour's rowing in before the office. But one thing she's not is a wife. Sass suspects there's something missing in her life, because every so often she has moments of panic when her stomach flips and she doesn't know why. E M Forster wrote about people like Sass. But these days it's not India or Florence our heroine visits for an epiphany but a remote island off Panama, for a six-week stay with the primitive Kuna tribe, with a camera crew in tow.
I'm no Dr Freud, but I can't help thinking there was no need for Sass to take such drastic measures. In fact, no sooner had I scribbled down "emotional baggage?" than dear Sass told us a terrible story of how, as a 13-year-old, she was betrayed by the social services when her parents were getting divorced.
She was asked in confidence to say which of her parents she would rather live with, and having said her dad, was wheeled into court in front of her parents and made to say it again. Her mother never forgave her and Sass has not seen her since. Is it any wonder Sass rows and works like a maniac to blot out the pain? As it happens, her story struck me particularly as my own sister had the same experience when our parents divorced. Luckily my mother subsequently forgave her and they are on amicable terms. But I did think Sass was in the wrong documentary. Why was she jetting to Panama when she should be off finding her mother?
Lo, an hour later Sass had blundered her way to a better understanding of herself. After six weeks with an adorable host family, Sass has experienced the love and warmth she has never had before, and forms a close attachment to Ana Lida, who becomes a surrogate mother. "I feel complete now," she says as she clambers into the boat home.
The unpicking one by one of the stitches of Sass's carapace was gratifying to watch, despite being as predictable as a Swiss rail excursion. Poignantly, her parting request was for a medicine to make men fall in love with her. But what happened next? Did she go back to work and spinsterhood? Annoyingly, we're not told. I hope at least Sass's mother was watching. She would have to be a grade-A monster not to get in touch after this.
Charles Dickens also had his share of emotional turmoil, according to Dickens' Secret Lover. Treacle-voiced Charles Dance narrated the story of the last 13 years of Dickens's life during which he was consumed by a crush on a young actress, Ellen Ternan. She was 18 when they met; he was 45. Like Sass, Dickens threw himself into his work to avoid confronting his shameful weakness. Why couldn't he just have a brazen affair, or two, like Wilkie Collins? The reason, the programme suggested, was that his novels had created a moral universe in which the good strived to be better and the fallen could only fall further.
This secret passion – there was thought to have been a child – tells us a lot about the man and his work. Like many of his characters, the writer was obsessed with secrecy, and his later novels became noticeably darker. But it was a pity that this programme, like Dickens, was unable to resist melodrama. Serious interviews with Dickens scholars such as John Carey, Peter Ackroyd and Kathryn Hughes were intercut with hammy dramatised scenes in candlelit boudoirs accompanied by sinister mood music. Yes, it's a good tabloid story, but it didn't need all that prurience and elbow-nudging.
Another good tabloid story got an airing in Bill Gates: How a Geek Changed the World. But sadly there's no mystery here – Gates is a boffin blessed with a shrewd business mind. Fiona Bruce tried in vain to unearth some psychological glitch. But nobody could put it better than Sir Alan Sugar when he said: "He has taken over the world. Get over it."
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