And the world laughs with you
the week on television
Saturday 15 March 1997
There was a particularly monstrous example of this critical stance in another newspaper's review of the first instalment of Balls to Africa (BBC1, Sun, Mon, Tues). It imputed the basest of limelight-seeking motives to the messy menage of celebrities assembled for a football tour of West Africa. They were described as "embarrassingly available" and "second- rate" by a reviewer the memory of whose witty radio stuntwork has been all but eclipsed by the widely noted brevity of his own career in TV. How second-rate is "second-rate"? Better than having no rating at all.
In fact, the now established tradition of comedians reporting from the front line of deprivation is part of a much wider trend in TV. Celebrity involvement buys an audience for documentaries that would normally be given a wide berth. They may be about feeding the world or feeding the intellect (remember Terry Jones on the crusades?) but the same rules apply. It speaks far less well of the viewer than the viewed that this should be so. We're the invertebrates for needing to be led by the hand towards our own wallets, or our own enlightenment, by people who make us laugh.
If there was a slackness to Balls to Africa, it took the refreshing form of an admission, albeit unspoken, that these celebrities didn't know precisely what good they were doing. Frank Skinner stood in a swarm of giggling "Africans", as the beneficiaries of our charity are generically known in this sort of film, and reckoned it was "great that they're doing gags". That summed up the almost childlike paucity of his world view, in which the punchline looms larger than the poverty line. But it was a welcome retreat from the holy know-all style of some previous Comic Relief films.
The tendency in Comic Relief programming to sentimentalise "Africans", with the help of slow-motion and plangent soundtracking, is not inflicted on "the homeless". Lenny Henry's brief in Walk On By (BBC1, Wed) was to present his street-sleeping subjects as individuals. Genetically programmed to be larger than life, he suppressed his own personality wherever loudness was inappropriate, but skilfully used it wherever possible to coax the personality out of others. In one scene, he helped Jason, a boy with a periodic heroin problem, to sell the very newspaper that carried this week's critique of Comic Relief's impure philanthropy. (In a rather choice irony, the punters all wanted him to autograph the front page.) Jason eventually felt familiar enough with Henry to admit that he always switched over when he was on.
Jason also took a camera crew to Canterbury to show them his childhood haunts. "Who'd want to film you?" a friend, passing by, asked incredulously. The glamour models on Kilroy (BBC1, Thurs) didn't have the answer to much the same question. Most of the women participating in this studio investigation into nude modelling were thinking in terms of a future in TV presenting. However, television is a prudish medium. "I've got a degree," said one woman from under uniform white hair. "But I can't get a job as a presenter. Perhaps at Channel X, but not Carlton." So there we have it: rejected by the channel widely regarded as the lowest of terrestrial low, but granted a free screen test by Kilroy.
As an act of wholly inappropriate charity, it was matched only by the plug for a moribund pop group in The Queen Phenomenon (C4, Mon). Channel 4 ought to set up an inquiry to find out how this one managed got through its defences. Perhaps it happened the day Michael Grade was handing in his resignation. MTV had presumably discarded it as insufficiently rigorous. The film was made by a rum-sounding pair called Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher. "Europeans". Who needs them'?
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