Welcome to Lagos, BBC2
The Prisoner, ITV
An uplifting gem of a documentary from the refuse tips of Lagos contrasts with a lacklustre US remake of a British classic
Sunday 18 April 2010
While the nation (or 9.4 million of us, anyway) was glued to the Great Debate on Thursday night, a real beauty, Welcome to Lagos, was blushing unseen on BBC2.
In Nigeria's biggest city (population 16 million and rising by 600,000 a year) the film-maker Gavin Searle took his camera into the most god-forsaken, rat-infested, polymorphously revolting territory you can imagine – the vast Olusosun rubbish dump, about the size of Slough – and discovered within it a miniature model society.
The 1,000-odd inhabitants scavenge directly from the back of refuse lorries, sorting through the reeking cascade of rubbish with fearsome metal hooks. They're all experts at spotting the morsels of brass or rubber, wire or plastic that can be parlayed into a few Nigerian pennies, and you'd naturally expect them to be rivalrous thugs, forever at each other's throats. Nothing of the sort. The dump is a mini-city, with its own bars, restaurants, shops, a mosque, even a barber's shop. Sometimes a thief is caught pinching another man's meagre trove of debris, whereupon he's tied up and a bald overseer called Ericho, with the grave implacability of Solomon, decides on his fate.
Searle's restlessly nosey camera concentrated on two men. Joseph was the wily entrepreneur who negotiates a price for the scavengers' findings with the city's metal dealers. Puckish, witty and wise, he was the documentary's hero. "Our business is just like the stock market," he told the camera. "It's governed by what happens to the dollar. The only difference between us and the City guys is the suit, the tie and the fine shoes."
We met his beautiful wife Elizabeth and their sweet children, Peace and Patience, while he displayed his random collection of special trophies liberated from the dump – an electric lamp, binoculars, a teddy bear ... it was like Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, gleefully handling her life's belongings.
The other central figure was Joseph's friend Eric, a singer, aka Vocal Slender, who works the dump to make enough money to mix his Yoruba song in a recording studio, and get some cool photos for a T-shirt. It seemed a ludicrous ambition for a man at the bottom of the food chain, but Eric was a hustler to the soles of his bare feet. When a street fracas left him accused of assault and facing a crippling compensation bill, the dump rats all chipped in to help, while Joseph threw a party for baby Patience's first birthday. The commentary by David Harewood was overly folksy ("You know what? Where you see filth, the scavengers see opportunity"), but this little hymn to human resourcefulness fairly twanged the heartstrings.
Forty-three years after the original series tantalised the nation for 17 weeks in late 1967, the American remake of The Prisoner finally hit the screens. Jim Caviezel, whose handsome fizzog was obscured by blood and matted hair when he played the lead in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, awoke in a desert to see an old man on a nearby hillside being hunted down by men with guns. Soon he found himself in The Village, where everyone has a number and any attempts to escape or do anything individual are met by the baffled enquiry: "Why would you want to do that?"
The new Village wholly lacks the sterile menace of Portmeirion in Patrick McGoohan's original; with its palm trees and beach huts, it looks like Venice Beach en fete. Ian McKellen as the riddling, omniscient Number Six – terribly English in a cream suit, blue tie and cup of tea – glides about cheerily with a boyish catamite by his side, radiating bonhomie rather than evil. Caviezel is athletic and noisily rebellious as the former secret agent but is one-dimensional where McGoohan was a moody existentialist. The flashbacks to his Manhattan life concentrate more on his affair with a foxy brunette (Hayley Atwell) than with any government secrets.
Altogether, the show is merely puzzling where once it was genuinely surreal. It features explosions where there used to be tense cat-and-mouse drama. A shame to find such a TV classic remade as some sort of hybrid of Lost and Life On Mars.
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