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No improvement

16 December 2016


Gimme shelter: a woman and toddler photographed by Nick Hedges in a Liverpool multi-let in 1969

Gimme shelter: a woman and toddler photographed by Nick Hedges in a Liverpool multi-let in 1969

HAVING a wholly inadequate home in which to bring up your children should, of course, be a Christmastide rather than an Advent theme; but we know that, once 25 December has come and gone, our national con­sciousness will put to one side its annual explosion of compassion, and focus rather on somewhere to spend the summer holiday.

So I should celebrate the fact that Slum Britain: 50 years on (Tuesday of last week) was commissioned and broadcast at all.

Fifty years ago, Shelter sent Nick Hedges to photograph how the poor were living in Britain’s cities, and he produced a shocking portfolio of urban decay and poverty, of broken-down houses hardly fit for the vermin with which they were in­­fested. His images demonstrate the impossibility of keeping clean and healthy when there is no decent sanitation.

The programme made two links over the half-century between then and now: first, tracking down the individuals portrayed and getting them to comment; and, second, to compare with today’s poorest hous­ing.

What emerged was an acknow­ledge­ment of the emotional and psychological damage that such living conditions cause. Again and again the words we heard were “shame” and “guilt” — most distressingly, the sense of guilt that today’s parents feel, with no choice but to bring up families in a single room, and the fear of what that is laying down for their chil­dren’s future.

A Church more eager to bolster up its sense of grandeur than ally with the poor was portrayed in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Vienna: Empire, dynasty and dream (BBC4, Thurs­day of last week).

Religion played its proper part in this account of the great Imperial city: in the Middle Ages, Vienna was the border outpost of the Roman Empire in its life-or-death struggle against Ottoman Islam; it destroyed its Jewish community in a part­icularly revolting fashion; and triggered the devastation of the Thirty Years War, as it fought its Protestant neighbours in Prague. The Christianity that triumphed was a particularly intransigent version of Roman Catholic supremacy.

The programme is gorgeous to look at, but how appalling that a celebration of the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mahler should be undermined by a sub-Hollywood blockbuster soundtrack.

A particular take on Hollywood is offered in Walt Disney (BBC2). Last Saturday’s first of two parts was a generous tribute to his vision and determination, raising the potential of cartoons far beyond the basic fare that every other animator churned out.

I had not appreciated the scale of his ambition: Mickey Mouse’s Steam­­boat Willie led to the unimaginable daring of the feature-length film Snow White. He was sure that he was creating a new serious art-form that should be treated as equal to other films; the Oscars disagreed, shunting him into a separate category.

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