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Television: Cambodian idyll

25 March 2009

by Gillean Craig

NO HARM will have been done if some of us modify our holiday plans after watching Cambodia: Selling the killing fields (Channel 4, Friday of last week).

This Unreported World series is screened at 7.35 p.m. as a subliminal riposte to all who imagine that this particular hour of the week brings with it a God-given right to slough off the cares of the working week and celebrate the advent of the week­end by heading for the nearest bar. (Professional insiders might recog­nise here the accumulated bitterness of 30 years of responding to those who ask me cheerily: “What are you do­ing at the weekend?” with an increas­ingly dour reminder that this is the time when I have work to do).

These half-hour documentaries remind us that, however miserable we might consider our lives to be, there are people in the world who are suffering, and seriously. Cambodia has embraced the delights of market forces, and slum-dwellers are being brutally removed from the prime sites they occupy in the centre of Phnom Penh.

The official resettlement village provides, for 2000 inhabitants, 12 lavatories — but to avail yourself of this convenience costs more than the people can afford. Closer to our own moral responsibility, perhaps, fish­ing communities are removed from the coast because they make far less money than exclusive holiday resorts.

The idyllic sands that so restore the spirits of exhausted Western hol­idaymakers were once the centre of native life and trade. Now those same natives are forbidden even to set foot on them.

About as far as you could get from this urgent plea for moral serious­ness lies the world of Free Agents (Channel 4, Friday of last week). I have come very late to this excep­tionally foul-mouthed comedy series that portrays the inability of two celebrity agents, Alex and Helen, to find true love. The culture they inhabit is mercilessly lampooned, its shallowness and cynicism a tribute to how human beings can misuse intelligence and imagination.

The script, however, is razor- sharp, and the characters are fully realised. The hapless leading couple exhibit genuine humanity beneath their hedonism: they screw up every chance of real relationship be­cause of real pain. Helen has not come to terms with her fiancé’s death; Alex still grieves for the wife who left him. For all their grotesque absurdity, these are people — greatly exaggerated, but like us.

It is possible that the Church of England might not regret too deeply the failure of Tom Driberg and Me (BBC4, Thursday of last week) to explore too much of his loyal mem­bership of the Church. Just about everything else that this MP, journalist, and celebrity belonged to turned out to be a profitable field for betrayal.

Almost certainly in the pay of both the KGB and MI5, his oratory on behalf of the working classes was equalled only by his eagerness to avoid them as much as possible, unless, like the Kray twins, they provided entry into a dangerous underworld with opportunities for homosexual liaison.

Yet two of his former protégés spoke of him with affection: despite years of having to fight off his unwanted attentions, they said, no one else had so broadened their horizons with true kindness. Perhaps he was not all bad, then.

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