TELEVISION / Where Mandela told it to the penguins

TELEVISION'S tit-for-tat battlezone, in which one network's success is promptly photocopied by its rival, is not just populated by the popular channels. The thinking channels have been going 12 rounds in the fight for the middlebrow audience: if it's not the South African election, then it's the French connection. A momentous historical watershed near you? There's a month-long season in it. What they'll come up with for the millennium, the Lord only knows.

The themed season is a growing feature of terrestrial scheduling. However welcome the signs of editorial invention it shows, you have to wonder whether BBC 2 and Channel 4 deserve our unmitigated thanks for saturating April with programmes from the same geo-political source. One of the built-in strengths of Arena's 'Voices from the Island' (BBC 2) was that it demanded not the slightest preliminary knowledge of, or even interest in, South Africa.

As the experiences of the Beirut hostages confirmed, tales of the hardships suffered by the unjustly jailed are of endless interest to us all. But in the story of Robben Island, the home of penguins, lepers and the mentally ill long before Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were incarcerated there, the by now almost standard anecdotes of deprivation and brutality were augmented by the forbidding beauty of the setting. We returned again and again to a shot of the island lurking under the louring glare of Table Mountain, whose high plateau looked like the line described by a finger peremptorily swiped across a neck.

The symbolism of the shot was unavoidable, but with so much information to hand over this was not a narrative that really needed artful camerawork to help it along. Some of it added, some did not. When the director (Adam Low) filmed a convict carrying his clanking leg-iron chain into a Cape Town hospital, the trick of getting everyone to stare into the camera hinted at the humiliation that comes from the isolating gaze of the multitude.

But an architect's model of the prison, round which Ken Morse's rostrum camera swooped and probed, struck an artificial note. And as we listened to Judge de Wet's sentence that put Mandela and co away, a camera panned across some shingle strewn with bric-a-brac - a chain, a jacket, a tennis racket, a radio, a tin dish and spoon, a tacky trophy, a beach towel and what looked like a framed photo of Sade.

The montage was presumably intended to suggest that in prison you trade sentimental objects for spartan utensils, but the point didn't really need making. A prisoner's anecdote about how he had pocketed a scrap of steel in case he'd need it, and years later fashioned a key out of it, said much more about the value of possessions.

A picture of the prison's uniqueness came into focus as the film progressed. On Robben Island, statesmen-to-be discussed politics, debated the meaning of Waiting for Godot, and went on hunger strike to earn the right to play volley-ball. Here, it dawned on the warders that these disciplined intellectuals were destined to become their leaders. In the end, Mandela's warder was practically his social secretary. The length of the film allowed this osmotic transformation to be properly conveyed.

The fact that English was the second language for many of the participants gave their reminiscences a slow, almost biblical simplicity. 'It was an experience, an experience one doesn't like to recall. But when it happened, it hurt. It hurt,' said Govan Mbeki. Delivered in the right accent, those words are as lapidary as that mountain across the water.

Pete McCarthy's witty Travelog in France (C 4) terminated in Cannes just as La Difference (BBC 2) began a rather messy dissection of Anglo-French manners and morals. The differences between us are legion, but one is that on their side of la Manche they teach seven-year-old mesdemoiselles how to apply make-up. This side, although oddly this was not mentioned, we teach them how to hold Mars Bar parties.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away

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