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TV Review: The Real Mo Farah, and Super Telescope: Mission to the edge of the universe

22 July 2022

BBC/Atomized Studios/Andy Boag

In The Real Mo Farah (BBC1, Wednesday of last week), the Olympic athlete confessed to living a lie

In The Real Mo Farah (BBC1, Wednesday of last week), the Olympic athlete confessed to living a lie

THE worst thing about BBC1’s The Real Mo Farah (Wednesday of last week) was BBC1. Desperate (it seems to me) to prove its popularity to antagonistic paymasters by building up viewing figures by any means, it bombards us with adverts and trailers, and even — as in this case — inserts previews into news bulletins, so that, by the time that the programme is actually broadcast, everyone is fully aware of its broad outline and can hardly be bothered to watch it.

This documentary deserved far better: it was a deeply troubling exploration of personal truth, as the famously cheerful and honest Olympics athlete confessed to living a lie. He is not, and never has been, Mo Farah. That name was thrust on him by relatives and friends so that he could be the more easily trafficked to England and live under official radar, working essentially as a domestic slave.

Even despite all the programme’s digging, the full story remains obscure; and one of the moving discoveries is how relatively unimportant that felt, in comparison with all the positives that were achieved. For the first time since childhood, he returned to Djibouti to meet his real family and his mother, who was completely uninvolved in the subterfuge (she had sent him, desperately, to relatives in the city, to escape the civil war that had just killed his father).

He contacted the real Mo Farah: the person whose identity had been thrust on him. We met remarkable people from his school and community whose belief in and care for him had been strong enough to make them bend rules and jeopardise their own positions. Acknowledging the truth so publicly lifted a huge burden of guilt, which had been lived with for so long. The shame sits more with our society: the UK probably harbours some 100,000 trafficked people; and our toxic political culture is so antagonistic to refugees that Sir Mo — real name Hussein Abdi Kahin — had to confront the possibility that his revelation might lead to deportation.

Just like the corporal and altar fair linen, everything depends on its folding and unfolding. Super Telescope: Mission to the edge of the universe (BBC2, Thursday 14 July) chronicled the £8-billion, decades-long design, construction, and launch of the James Webb space telescope, now sending its first glorious images. We will see for the first time the ends of the universe: because that light takes 13 billion years to travel, it reveals the birth of the very first stars, i.e. we will witness how God did it.

The telescope is vast — its heat shield is the size of a tennis court — but had to fold into a tiny space and, once in orbit, unfold out and out, every one of the thousands of machines and mechanisms working perfectly, or the whole thing would fail, no second chance possible. I found it inexpressibly moving.

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