TV review: Why Don't You Speak English? Channel 4

Imagine – Woody Allen: a Documentary, BBC1

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The Independent Culture

My latest fantasy pitch for a TV documentary, "¿Hablas Español?", will involve billeting a colony of British expats on the Costa del Sol with an Andalusian family to learn the patois and cook the local food. While I'm waiting for the green light, here was Why Don't You Speak English?, in which a quartet of recent immigrants to the UK bunked up with British families for five days, in the hope of picking up a smattering of the lingo. Such a time scale is obviously unrealistic, but then the real subject here – as suggested by the provocative title (to be uttered, I assumed, in an exasperated manner) – was immigration and assimilation.

Like the recent Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits, the object was to use individual stories as a way into a hot political issue, here the inability of an estimated one million immigrants to the UK to speak the language of their adopted country. Not that Colombian immigrant Fabian will have needed too firm a grasp of English to understand what a drinker in the pub, where he had been sent to work, was saying: "They take English jobs," said this plain-speaking man. "We have to look after our own first." If Nigel Farage had been having a photo opportunity at the bar, pint in hand, he would have beamed his approval.

Eileen and Steve believed a guided tour of their hometown might ease Apple from China into the language, although it's doubtful whether such phrases as "That's the Redcar Beacon" will prove useful in Croydon, whither Apple had followed her husband and his new job. Still, they meant well, and while Apple was stumped by their task in which she had to buy a quarter of liquorice allsorts, mutual incomprehension didn't stop them seeming genuinely saddened at parting company.

Nineteen-year-old Agnieszka, who already speaks the second most common language in the UK, Polish, used the correct form of words for a request to use her hosts' toilet, but was baffled by the linguistic complexity of "left at the top of the stairs". And just when you were beginning to wonder whether this was turning into an episode of the 1970s sitcom Mind Your Language, along came 24-year-old Sifah from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was the international language of grief that bonded Sifah with her Yorkshire farmer hosts, the Scotts, as, frustrated by her inability to tell her story, Sifah turned to the production interpreter to explain how her parents had been murdered. The empathic effect was instantaneous, the Scotts' son having been killed in action in Iraq 10 years previously. "She came here to learn English, but it's now gone to something deeper," said Robin Scott, planting a sapling in memory of Sifah's parents next to his son's grave, and providing a moving riposte to clenched Little Englanders. "Her future is now something we can't divorce ourselves from."

I watched Imagine – Woody Allen: a Documentary Part 1 for an insight into why the standard of the director's movies has declined so alarmingly, but I guess that will have to wait until tonight's second instalment of Robert B Weide's profile. What we got instead was a delicious evocation of Allen's 1940s Brooklyn childhood and a reminder of just how good a stand-up comic he was back in the day. It seems that Allen has always had a ferocious work ethic, right from his days as a schoolboy selling gags to established comedians, so perhaps the secret of his decline is that he simply can't bring himself to retire. Allen's sister, Letty Aronson, who recalled how Woody had been a happy-go-lucky child until his fifth birthday, when he discovered the fact of his own mortality. And thereby hangs an artistic career.

A late schedule change meant that ITV's 'Long Lost Family', reviewed in yesterday's paper, was not broadcast