TELEVISION / Protect and deprive: a film-maker's guide

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The Independent Culture
A LOT OF politics about last night. You could choose to have it plain boiled - as in Channel Four's radical law programme The Brief (television as doggedly utilitarian as a spanner), or with a touch of added spice, as in Muriel Gray's entertaining attempt to rip the sheepskin covers off the car magazine. Plainest of all, though only half-boiled, was 40 Minutes' film about advertising in the Philippines (BBC 2). This revealed the shocking fact that there is a discrepancy between the images peddled by advertisers and the actual circumstances of people's lives. Yes, I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. What's more they proved it, by intercutting a coffee ad featuring a breakfast scene with the early morning routine of a Manila street-trader. They were, like, totally, completely different. Like, the guy in the ad didn't live in a packing-crate or anything.

'Advertising is in the business of turning luxuries into necessities,' explained one contributor, for the benefit of viewers who had been down a pot-hole for the last 30 years. 'Personal happiness is measured in the acquisition of brand-name goods,' complained another. Fortunately for the film-makers' leaden sense of irony someone actually sells a cigarette called Hope in the Philippines, a fact which led to a repetitive nudge in the commentary that made you want to turn round and scream 'Stop poking me]'

And if it was condescending towards its audience, it was even worse towards its subjects. For every grim contrast of poverty and promise you were shown, an equivalent could be found within a mile or two of Shepherd's Bush, but nobody would dream of making such a film about Britain. To suggest that consumers were the merest children in the face of capitalism's blandishments might be thought insulting. To suggest, as this did in its final frames, that people are reduced to zombies by a television screen, might be thought injudicious (though it damn near worked for me on this occasion). 'Let them eat McDonalds,' sang the advertisers. 'Let them eat rice,' muttered the programme makers, indignant at this commercial imperialism. If they are so troubled by the crass imposition of Western values on developing countries perhaps they should stay at home in future.

Treating the poor or the powerless as less intellectually capable than ourselves is also one of the problems with political correctness, a failure to realise that protection can become deprivation with dangerous ease. It's one of the reasons that Kipling's ambiguous and disturbing writing won't be found in many schools. The poet Craig Raine is indignant about this and put his case in a refreshingly brusque contribution to Without Walls' occasional series J'Adore.

I suppose it was a little unmannerly here and there - after all Hermione Lee had been invited to contribute and might have been a little surprised to find her opinions repudiated by her host as 'stupid' and 'breathtakingly coarse'. Tom Paulin suffered short shrift too, after attempting to claim Kipling's grim short story Mary Postgate as an anti-imperialist work. But if you weren't on the receiving end the departure from critical etiquette made you giggle with pleasure and it was combined with a script of unforced richness, written to the pictures (a line about Kipling's 'flickering presence' at the end of empire coincided with the flutter of ancient archive film).

At first I feared that Raine was going to bow to PC pressure - in effect, to try and get the blackball lifted by proving that Kipling was a racial awareness officer before his time. He certainly began by scotching some of the more ignorant myths about Kipling's jingoism. But some of this pleading sounded a little strained and in the end he sensibly said 'To hell with your club,' defending Kipling for the nerve and compassion with which he depicts the world as it is, not how we would like it to be. Raine called on Joseph Conrad for his summing up - 'The first artistic duty is to make you see. That and no more.'