TV review: The Greatest Shows on Earth, Arab World (Channel 4) was shocking, not titillating

 

Something revealing turned up at the end of the preview version of last night's The Greatest Shows on Earth. It was a trailer for the programme that actually opened the series, the one about Brazil that headlined on semi-naked women. That rather suggests that there'd been a late change to the transmission order of the programmes.

Nothing very surprising in that, of course. Getting the right opening episode to launch a series is one of the necromantic skills of scheduling and in this case, it seems, someone had decided it might be safer to go with Latin American showgirls rather than women in burkas. If so, someone was dead wrong, because last night's episode achieved exactly what the Brazil programme was aiming at but just missed.

It was shocking, not titillating, and at times unexpectedly moving in its account of new Arab liberties and old Arab oppressions. Ironically, had it gone out first, the Brazil programme would have looked much better than it actually did, because it would have been easier to understand the series' ambitions. So, a decision that did a disservice to the audience (in underestimating its intelligence), to the series as a whole (in skewing viewer perception of it) and to Channel 4 itself, since my guess is that last night's episode would have drawn better reactions than the over- familiar tawdriness of Brazilian telly. Good work that.

Last night's film started relatively conventionally, with Daisy Donovan visiting an Egyptian comedy show host and gamely going along with his lame pretence that her questioning had induced a heart attack. But then she turned to one of his television rivals, a prankster called Ramez Galal, whose biggest hit to date involved persuading Egyptian celebrities that they'd been caught up in a terrorist attack. The staged assault was so appallingly realistic – involving explosions, gunfire and summary executions – that it seemed a miracle that none of those subjected to it had died of a heart attack.

And when Donovan and her producer went to interview the maniac who conceived of this atrocity, both women were subject to a sustained adolescent hazing that left them visibly unnerved. Before the Arab Spring, such programmes would have been impossible, but Donovan's suggestion that they were a symptom of something febrile and potentially dangerous in the new liberties seemed to fit with what you saw on screen. The biopsy of a hit television programme had revealed a potential malignancy.

Then she went to Abu Dhabi for one of the Arab world's biggest television talent contests, an extravaganza that draws up to 70 million viewers and focuses, astonishingly, on classical poetry. And here the fact that Donovan takes part in the shows she reports on delivered something entirely unexpected. Given the task of composing and reading her own poem, she enlisted the help of a previous contestant, Hissa Hilal, a Saudi Arabian woman who had used her appearances on the show to criticise the country's more conservative clerics. This audacity had earned her both death threats and a big cash prize when she came in third, evidence in itself that the Middle East has complexities that we don't always hear about. And Donovan's poem – an unexpectedly heartfelt lament about marital silence – built a rather touching connection between the two women.

At one moment, you were laughing out loud (a clip from a channel run exclusively by veiled women included a brilliant shot of the anchorwoman, a large black sheet with a pair of glasses perched on top) and at the next, you were feeling moved, as Hissa, her back carefully to the camera, lifted her niqab so that Donovan could finally see her face. As in all really memorable television something had happened that nobody could have predicted before filming began, and you weren't just told something about a society, you saw it for yourself. A pity that whoever bumped it down the running order didn't see it too.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?