Democracy, not charity-mongering

BBC1 The girl in the café Saturday June 25

As part of the 'Africa lives' season, the BBC has been hosting a whole series of programmes on its television, radio and online services. In the proud boast of a BBC press office release, this seasons "marks the biggest ever exploration of one continent on BBC1" and "will give viewers a new perspective on, and a deeper understanding of, Africa in a year when it will dominate headlines" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases). This, of course, is primarily a reference to the Gleneagles G8 summit and the attendant charity-mongering from the likes of the Make Poverty History campaign group and its multifarious backers (including the 'revolutionary Marxist' Socialist Workers Party). In fact, it is not unfair to say that 'ending world poverty' has become the establishment cause par excellence - so much so that at the head of Saturday's 'protest' march in Edinburgh is the abortion-hating, Michael Howard-supporting, cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor (head of the catholic church in England and Wales) and his Scottish equivalent, Keith O'Brien. The two cardinals, renowned for their political radicalism, pre-emptively blessed the demonstrators - it was widely anticipated that some 100,000 or more would turn up - and both have stressed the need for "fundamental changes" to international trade laws, alongside praying for "extensive" debt relief and an end to the "distortions" caused by European Union agricultural subsidies. One can only but wonder as to whether they will be buying any of the 'official' MPH "consciousness raising" memorabilia, such as the designer boxer shorts and hot pants manufactured from 'fair trade' cotton in an 'ethically audited' factory in Turkey. In pursuance of the BBC's "new perspective" then, we have had the dreadful Geldof in Africa series and can now look forward to a "special edition" of the gardening show, Ground force, which "bids a fond farewell" with the team joining forces with the Eden Project for "one of their biggest challenges yet: building a 'garden for Africa'". Auntie Beeb is certainly giving us some hard-hitting stuff, it has to be said. Perhaps there should be a special, one-off episode of Only fools and horses set in downtown Gabarone? The BBC's noble mission to end world poverty but at the same time boost audience ratings saw its 'Africa lives' department commission Richard Curtis to write a 'G8 drama' - and, to quote again from our BBC press release, he has produced a "funny and poignant love story", whereby he "combines his comedic touch with a powerful humanitarian message about the willingness of the richest countries to combat poverty in the third world". Frankly, the omens were not good right from the start. Curtis is responsible for insipid, frothy, cappuccino-tinged tripe like Notting Hill, Four weddings and a funeral and Love actually - not to mention the distinctly unhilarious comedy shows, Mr Bean and The vicar of Dibley (though he has partially redeemed himself, of course, with the genuinely funny Blackadder shows, which he co-scripted). Certainly, one could never accuse Curtis of ever writing 'socialist realist' or 'kitchen sink' dramas - more light, escapist fantasies for stressed-out aspirants or anyone with a desire to 'veg out' for an hour or two. After all, who does not want to live in Notting Hill and be in love? Hence, it was always unlikely that Curtis would break with form and pen an original, effective, intelligent political drama that would challenge audience expectations and tackle head-on political-cultural prejudices. But this time round, maybe, just maybe ...? No, of course not. As could have been predicted with near scientific accuracy, The girl in the café was liberal, sentimentalist slop from beginning to end - with the essential message being that the political leaders assembled at Gleneagles (though relocated to Reykjavik for the purposes of this drama) could eliminate world poverty at the stroke just by making "great decisions", to use the words of one of the two main protagonists, Gina. Indeed, quite disturbingly, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were portrayed as virtual saviours of the world, doing battle with the perfidious French, Germans and Americans - all they need is a little push, or moral encouragement, in the right direction and everything will be fine. Africa saved. Peace on earth. Naturally, the African masses themselves will have no say in the matter, just, presumably, an eternal gratitude towards their 'liberators' from afar and from above. The story of The girl in the café, such as it is, centres around lonely, awkward, semi-aristocratic, Hugh Grantish Lawrence, a civil servant who works for an unnamed but Scottish chancellor of the exchequer. Lawrence wanders into a café and meets the irritatingly elfish Gina, a sort of Scottish Eliza Doolittle - she is uneducated, has never heard of such worldly matters as G8 (obviously), suffered from some mysterious past tragedy (inevitably), yet at the same time somehow manages to speak the clear, unsophisticated truth. Bless her. Naturally, Lawrence falls in love with her and, rather implausibly, invites her to the G8 summit as his 'official' spouse or partner. When at Reykjavik, needless to say, Gina's spontaneous interjections, if not sheer presence, upsets the "well-crafted compromises" (Lawrence) being hatched by the men in suits (women only appear as frustrated wives) and in the end, quite fantastically, with almost an embarrassing hint of ethical transcendence, our Tony and Gordon derive strength and inspiration from Gina and Do The Right Thing - though it is left totally unstated as to what exactly the 'right thing' is or was. All we know is that the eight world leaders have it in their power to end all poverty, if only they could get their priorities right. One thing is for sure though: in Curtisland the 'right' or 'decent' thing never involves democracy, mass self-activity from below or socialism. Instead, we have an adulation of messy individualism and middle class sentimentalism. Lawrence was ably played by Bill Nighy, who will be immediately familiar to Auf Wiedersehen, pet fans, and Gina was portrayed by Kelly Macdonald, who rose to prominence after appearing in Trainspotting. Brown, or his Doppelgänger, was impersonated by the industrious and avowedly socialist Ken Stott, who in recent times has had the misfortune of appearing in the appalling, and gratuitously unpleasant, diabolically-clever-serial-killer-on-the-loose-yet-again Messiah series for the BBC (no more please) and the plain daft Uncle Adolf for ITV. In short, what Curtis has hacked out for his masters in the BBC is an extremely disingenuous, if not cynical, drama - that is, a highly ideological, politically-loaded product that attempts to masquerade as a sweetly innocent, apolitical romance. He would have us believe that love - not the power of the organised working class - can change the world l Eddie Ford