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TV review: Brian Cox: How the other half live, Oti Mabuse: My South Africa, and The English

25 November 2022


The actor Brian Cox is exploring How the Other Half Live (Channel 5 and My5, Thursday of last week)

The actor Brian Cox is exploring How the Other Half Live (Channel 5 and My5, Thursday of last week)

BRIAN COX — the actor, not the scientist — is exploring How the Other Half Live (Channel 5 and My5, Thursday of last week). A highly successful TV career has given him a life among the wealthy in the United States, but he does not feel at home there.

Fruit of a booming property market, the Miami real estate that first he visits produces gleaming mansions so devoid of style and taste that some of us wouldn’t be seen dead in them; but the acute distress of the poorer residents, whose rented properties are being razed to enable the development, rendering them homeless, could not be more genuine, or affect him more deeply.

Recession and Covid have made the rich far richer and the poor far poorer; the world’s ten richest people are worth more than the poorest three million. Cox then revisits his Dundee childhood home, to find that the poverty that he grew up in has returned: the 1960s shrinkage of the wealth gap, the hope held out to poor kids like him by 1960s London, has reversed; he volunteers at a community larder to see for himself how people are barely getting along.

This is not a subtle or sophisticated economic analysis, but his despair and rage at a system that protects and enhances the wealthy while offering crumbs to the poor could not be more heartfelt.

There was another return home to explore injustice and oppression in Oti Mabuse: My South Africa (BBC1 and iPlayer, Thursday of last week). She, too, escaped childhood poverty through her art — in her case, by dancing: she was the first black girl to win international competitions.

Her documentary grew darker and darker as she realises how her success was built on the struggle and sacrifice of others: her mother setting up a dance school as a place of safety in her township; the slow and costly achievements of step-by-step racial equality. Dance is omnipresent in African culture: the instinctive expression of joy, sorrow, and community.

Her final scene was not the obvious success stories — those of the white ostrich farmers delighted to welcome her as an honoured guest (“I thought only white people could be farmers”), or the splendid black woman wine-maker — but, rather, that of the charismatic teacher of native dance to children in Cape Town slums, trying to provide safety against the pervasive drug, gang, and gun culture: a vulnerable sign of hope against overwhelming forces of despair.

A final journey home is one strand in the series The English (BBC2, Thursdays from 10 November), as the Pawnee army scout Eli Whipp seeks to claim the land that he has been promised. The injustice of Native Indian dispossession underlies the whole: this land is scarred by theft and dishonesty. The programme is enigmatic, confusing, unwatchably violent, and frequently so dark that you think that your TV has packed up — in other words, high art.

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