White hunters, black hearts

Click to follow
THOSE clever people in BBC2's publicity department did marvellously well to organise such a sweltering week for the launch of their summer series about Africa. Talk about method viewing. As the week wore on, it was easy to imagine that you were watching from a hotel room in Lagos, with a fan that didn't work. The project is admirable, and has already accomplished a great deal, but its most striking achievement might be that it led a British audience to gaze at parched roads and sub-Saharan plains and think: gosh, it looks damn cool out there.

It began last weekend with the 10th anniversary of Live Aid and a strong curtain-raising double bill, The New Map of Africa and TV Afrika. Then it branched into an impressive series of discussions, documentaries and travelogues. Quite why the BBC insisted on calling it "Afrika" - with a special "k" to remind us of Kafka's Amerika - is not clear. It does the place no service to pretend that it is some kind of surreal invention, as if all that pillage and plunder and suffering were not real. But otherwise the week went well. The Radical Option - Reparations for Africa raised the temperature by examining the notion that the West should make good on its moral debt to Africa, just as Germany has compensated Israel for the crimes of the Holocaust. It's a good idea: the debt seems evident enough; no one can live cheerfully with the idea that when slavery was abolished it was the slave-owners who were compensated. But the programme seemed over-anxious to keep things simple. Anyone who had the cheek to point out that the history of slavery was not quite a black and white issue, that the Arab slave-trade existed before the European one and flourished long after abolition in Britain, and that African leaders played a role in the dreadful commerce, was branded a moral idiot and a racist.

What a pity. None of these observations remotely mitigates the original crime. Even if reparations did nothing but free the noisier Afrophiles from their infatuation with the shocking misdeeds of the imperial past, they would be a good idea. The sad thing is that most viewers, in these animal-righteous times, will have had their consciences stirred more readily by the sight of a dead leopard than by the thought of all those people chained, whipped and stashed on disease-ridden boats for the middle passage. Africa's Big Game might have sounded like a preview of the Cameroon v Nigeria World Cup qualifier, but it turned out to be a sombre account of the European love-affair with Africa's wild animals.

Our obsession with African wildlife took the unusual form of killing as much of it as possible. In the brilliant Powell and Pressburger comedy of imperial manners, The Life and Death Colonel Blimp, the hero nips to Africa every time he is fed up, and his walls start comically sprouting lions and warthogs, antelope and porcupine. He wasn't alone. It didn't take the evil white man (and evil white woman) long to empty Kenya, and that's when the conservation movement began. Its first move was to ban spears and nets - a laughable but serious attempt to blame the natives, who had lived along- side the animals for centuries without feeling the need to wipe them out.

In an ugly kind of conservationist apartheid, people were moved to make room for endangered species. "The tribal people," said one eloquent Zulu leader, "were resentful of being told that the animals were no longer theirs to see and to admire and sometimes to eat, but belonged to a strange person whose face they only saw on coins." The face belonged to George VI, and it was often to be seen grinning over a fresh kill. In a final twist, the conservation movement has proved so successful that today, animals once fiercely guarded are being culled. Now that stocks have been replenished, normal hunting can resume.

The programme was full of wonder-ful archive footage. One early explorer, an American woman, couldn't be bothered with the name of a would-be bearer and wrote it down as "Coffee- pot". Some scientists thought it would be a good wheeze to see how much electricity it would take to kill an elephant, and there it went, smoke hissing from its legs. It wasn't mentioned in the discussion of reparations, but on this evidence the West certainly owes Africa an awful lot of lions.

It was poignant to watch those lordly Edwardian gents clambering up a dead elephant and waving from the summit like mountaineers. But this might have been because it echoed the week's top slice of news footage, which showed the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, quivering like a sissy on top of a UN tank. God knows it isn't easy adjusting to a new job, but Portillo looked about as comfortable as a hunter who has just discovered that the rhino is still alive. It's true what they say about those soldiers: they are damn well trained. None giggled.

Portillo was in Bosnia, which might well be talking heatedly about reparations a few decades from now. But C4 took the chance to screen a much-vaunted documentary about last year's war in Chechnya, The Betrayed. So far as I know, what happened was that an emerging Islamic republic was invaded by the Russian army and smashed to pieces. Grozny, the capital, ended up looking like Stalingrad. But it is hard to be sure. The film was careful not to enlighten us.

It looked superb on the trailers: all grainy camerawork and harrowed faces. But in taking all the impressionist options the film tipped to- wards mere voyeurism. The producers captured some amazing sequences, and shot them with rare bravado, but some quirk of vanity led them to be self-consciously incoherent. No story emerged: there was no narration of events, and no way to orientate our sympathies. You could see the idea: war is so mad it is trite even to try and make sense of it. But the result was gruesome, in both senses of the word. Grisly scenes - bullets punching into bodies, faces torn away, exhumed corpses, and frantic machine-gun fire - were not even dignified by an awed silence. Instead they were livened up with jaunty music - half Gipsy Kings, half Tom Waits. If it was meant to be a shocking contrast, it didn't work: the film steered away from Scylla (no violins - for heavens sake!) and drowned in Charybdis. It wasn't meant to, but at times it looked like a pop video, a ghoulish parade of war-zone chic.

The instant report on the Dean of Lincoln in The Big Story (ITV) was the exact opposite: quick, trashy and effec- tive. True, there was a pathetic "recon- struction", in which solemn clerics filed into a meeting so secret it might not have taken place at all. But the Dean was able to unwrap a pretty conspiracy theory about the malicious tendency inside Lincoln Cathedral, which had been out to get him for years. It seems he had made himself unpopular trying to clean up the diocesan budget, and in this valley of debt there were canons to right of him, and canons to left. Worse, he had been aware for months that the Bishop was breathing down his neck - a clear case of harassment if ever there was one. But of course he was far too godly to make any formal allegations to the authorities. Instead he decided to blurt it all out on prime-time television. Who says the church isn't moving with the times?