IAN HISLOP found an extraordinarily topical subject for his latest excursion along a byway of history. Who Should We Let In? Ian Hislop on the first great immigration row (BBC2, Thursday of last week) provided perspective for our current anxieties about our borders by exploring the background to the Aliens Act of 1905.
It is perhaps not widely appreciated that, before that Act was passed, Britain had been proud of the fact that all were welcomed here; in the mid-19th century, it was widely perceived as one of our moral superiorities. But, by the turn of the 20th century, the attitude was changing.
Fuelled by sensationalist popular newspapers, sentiment against perceived ghettos, where alien and immoral behaviour was the norm, grew and grew. Hislop showed how much of this whipping up was created by that phenomenon supposedly new to our times: fake news.
Many of the journalists’ stories were simply fabrications: those who investigated Liverpool Chinatown or East End Jewry reported that they were more hard-working than their native neighbours. But, in terms depressingly familiar, they could still be blamed for working for less than true-born Brits, pushing down wages, taking up scarce accommodation, and living off our charity.
From the moment of its passing, a new discrimination had to be employed: from now on, immigrants had to be categorised as either worthy or unworthy. Hislop did not merely retreat into history: he took his findings on to the street, showing passers-by what he had discovered, and asking their reaction.
He challenged Katie Hopkins on her toxic views, revealing his own generous attitudes. It could not, he concluded, be a simple binary choice between borders completely open or totally closed: today, the numbers of immigrants were out of all proportion to those that had faced the country in 1905. But, he pleaded, let us at least adopt a policy of open minds.
Brexit Means Brexit (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) covered some not entirely unrelated territory: there was a similarly implicit liberal, pro-European, metropolitan attitude. But, as that is the one I share, I consider it objective and not at all biased. The documentary filmmaker Patrick Forbes followed the 12 months since the fateful day: a year so crammed full of extraordinary UK political events as to defy belief.
In fact, the programme was somewhat undercut by the sense that it was surely fiction: even having lived through it could not take away my doubts that it had all happened. This must be bitter farce, not reportage?
For a window on to a seemingly alien society, overcrowded in a way that we can scarcely imagine, The Art Of Japanese Life (BBC4, Mondays) could hardly be bettered. It is not just art history: James Fox places Japanese culture in its widest context — social, political and religious — and makes it intriguing and inviting.