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Horror stories

28 November 2014

by Sarah Meyrick


THERE has been a row about the decision to re-release the Band Aid single "Do They Know It's Christmas?", 30 years after the original fund-raiser. Bob Geldof and colleagues have done so (at the request of the UN) to raise money for the fight against the Ebola virus. The lyrics have been tweaked, and the song re-recorded; it is selling well. But there has been an angry response from some in West Africa, who argue that the song is patronising.

The promoter Harvey Goldsmith was on BBC Radio 4's Today programme last week to defend the decision. He cited a recent edition of Panorama, Ebola Frontline (BBC1, Monday of last week), as evidence that inaction in current circumstances was indefensible.

It is hard to disagree with his response to the programme. At the time of filming, the outbreak was responsible for more than 5000 deaths. Hundreds of volunteers are working to help treat patients. One such was Javid Abdelmoneim, a 35-year-old A&E doctor from London, who spent a month at an Ebola treatment centre with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Sierra Leone. The Panorama team went with him.

Abdelmoneim was one of four doctors, 52 nurses, and more than 200 support staff at work. Day after day, a seemingly endless queue of patients arrived. The MSF team, wrapped in bio-hazard suiting, tested people for symptoms of the disease. Sometimes, half a family was clear, and could be sent home. Others were not so lucky.

People do recover from the Ebola virus. But the trouble is that the illness is so rife, and burials are so haphazard, that it spreads quickly. And the dying stages are horrible. If patients recover, they might be moved to the convalescent wing, but even here they are not always safe. We saw a father leave his one-year-old daughter for a few moments. He never came back.

Another convalescent woman, unrelated to the family, took on the child before her own sister died, and she left the centre in great distress.

Abdelmoneim tried not to get too involved, but he became increasingly angry. As he said, it was only once white people began to be infected that the world sat up and took notice; and the disaster was unfolding against the background of pre-existing malaria and poverty. What hope is there? This was powerful and important television; Panorama is clearly back on form.

Secrets of the Castle with Ruth, Peter and Tom (BBC2, Tuesdays) is another series following in the footsteps of the long running historical re-creation series which started five years ago with Victorian Farm. In this case, the team of historians are hard at work on an extraordinary, 30-year project to build a medieval castle - using entirely medieval methods - in Guédelon, in France. The historian Ruth Goodman and the archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold met a crew of English and French stonemasons, rope-makers, woodcutters, tile-makers, blacksmiths, and other craftsmen who are painstakingly recreating life as it was.

As in the earlier programmes, it was fascinating to see how much - and how little - has changed over the centuries.

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