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.

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