What’s the trouble with working women?

Sophie Raworth and Justin Rowlatt. BBC

“Diverting but pointless,” said the Guardian Guide preview. And after watching two hours of BBC 2‘s The Trouble With Working Women last night and on Monday, I’d have to agree.

The programme, fronted by the always smiley Sophie Raworth and the unwittingly sexist Justin Rowlatt, reached some very soft conclusions which our old friend Basil Fawlty would have dismissed as “the bleedin’ obvious”. Namely, that women’s working lives change radically if and when they become mothers; that the world of work isn’t geared up to dealing with people with strong commitments outside of the world of work; and that women may have “richer” lives than men, even though they earn around £369,000 less than men over the course of a working lifetime.

Key moments were Rowlatt surveying an open plan office full of women at Accenture (I think that’s Arthur Andersen to you and me) and assuming it was a secretarial department. And Rowlatt, father of three, saying as another aside to Raworth: “Yes, I only have girls.” As if he really wants a boy. But I guess that’s for him and his partner to work out, not for us viewers to worry about.

Also key, but not given much airtime, was Spare Rib founder Rosie Boycott admitting that the pioneers in the second (or was it third?) wave of feminism in the 1970s hadn’t had children at the time. Had they done so, she suggested, their thoughts about how women can conquer the world might have been slightly different. More family-friendly, perhaps; more insistent on equality within the home as well as outside it. Another woman celebrated for founding the first women’s refuge in the UK was filmed shockingly recanting everything she presumably held dear as a younger person, suggesting women should stay at home and raise families for the good of society and for their own personal fulfilment. And we thought biology wasn’t destiny.

All in all: it was two hours of television that rehearsed the same old arguments and failed to put the working world to rights. But at least it’s airing the issues again. We women can go away with the promise of emotional riches from our lives of child-bearing and rearing. Those that want material riches instead are advised to remain child-free.

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How much is too much?

 TV graph. www.thinkbox.tv

More than one person (yes, OK, it was two people) has asked me why I watch so much crap TV. I know, media people, it’s incredible to you and me to comprehend but some folk out there in the “real world” with “real jobs” and “real lives” don’t appreciate your efforts at churning out expensive, time-consuming hours of drama and documentary programming.

So I bring you this little piece of good news which plopped into my inbox yesterday from Thinkbox, an organisation calling itself the marketing body for the main UK commercial TV broadcasters, namely ITV, Channel 4, Five, Sky, Turner (CNN, Cartoon Network) and Viacom (MTV and Comedy Central).

According to Thinkbox, the average person watched 17 hours 24 minutes a week of commercial TV between January and March this year. If you factor in viewing of non-commercial TV, that is the BBC channels, the average person must be watching a hell of a lot more again. Even at 17 hours 24 minutes a week, that’s about 2 hours 29 minutes a day.

This is desperately important to commercial broadcasters because they’re desperately competing for advertising with the internet and other media (newspapers – remember them?) so if broadcasters tell us lots of people are watching their channels, advertisers are more likely to keep advertising with them.

But it’s also one-in-the-eye for those who still peddle the clapped out line that TV is for saddos. There may be a lot of crap on TV, but there’s a lot of good stuff too. Your crap is my foie gras, etc etc. And with catch-up services on the internet it’s easier than ever to find something you want to watch, when you want to watch it.

So, media people: as you were. Panic abated, for now.



Michael Portillo in Horizon: How Violent Are You. BBC

Sorry about the picture of Michael Portillo (above). Who’d have thunk I’ve have his fatty features squished onto my pages?

But he was on BBC 2 last night, presenting an ep of Horizon which has found its way onto my radar this series in a way it never has before. Maybe it’s the sleb presenters (David Baddiel et al), maybe it’s just that the BBC has made the subjects of each documentary more relevant and accessible than before. But this is the second or third Horizon film I’ve knowingly sought out and watched.

Last night’s film was all about violence and what makes humans behave so violently. Is it something we learn or something that’s innate, that we’re born with?

Portillo suggested he was normally a peacable type of bloke, although in psychiatric testing he revealed he’d smacked at least two computers and a fax machine in his time. “Scientists” say this sort of behaviour indicates the “core” personality of someone, which that person tries to control in everyday life. Certainly, most people try to control their violent tendencies after the age of three, when, we were told, the front part of the brain begins to develop strong links with the emotional centre of the brain, telling us that violence is wrong and it’s better to share than simply stab your neighbour to death.

But even Portillo’s supposedly equable personality changed after enduring 60 hours of sleep deprivation and the unrelenting, shrill demands of simulated three-month-old twin babies. “The noise goes through you like a knife,” said the presumably child-free Portillo on videocam. Tell me about it, Mike. I’ve got the bloody T-shirt for enduring night-time crying.

Apparently sleep deprivation, like alcoholism or a car accident, can damage the front part of the brain that controls violent instincts, leading to increased hostility and aggression. (At last! The explanation I’ve needed to put to my partner for years of barely concealed anger and resentment!) If Portillo was still in politics, perhaps he’d factor this sort of thinking into dealing with the perpetrators of terrible crimes like the abuse of Baby Peter. I’m not condoning that violence. I’m just saying the perpetrators need help too.

But there are other causes of violence involving more subtle changes to a personality. The sort of pre-meditated violence that led to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany or the massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia comes, it seems, from a human ability to swap morality for submission to authority. Portillo observed a terrifying experiment in which 9 out of 12 ordinary people subjected someone to a 450-volt electric shock because they believed it was being done in the name of science and because they took a professor’s word for it that no lasting damage was being done to the person receiving the shocks.

The sequence showed us everything we need to know about ideolody, totalitarianism, gang violence and how individuals can succumb to something bigger than themselves which overrides their own sense of what’s morally right.

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Er, farewell

Old cast of ER. Warner Bros/NBC/Channel 4

So ER, one of the best US dramas of all time, is finally coming to an end on More4. After 15 years, it’s time to say goodbye to County General and the great, good and downright evil folk who have walked its corridors.

Gulp. Watching a few preview clips on YouTube, I’m already welling up. It’s just like the last ever episode of Friends. The One With the Eerily Empty Apartment and Six Keys on the Counter. I cried big, splashy, red-faced tears.

It’s no use tutting and despairing of me weeping over a sappy TV series. I bet you, dear reader, can think of someone, perhaps a group of people or even a place which you’ve got to know over a number of years. You probably spent a lot of time together. Then you might have lost that person, group or place. Loss is a fundamental human experience and it hurts. I’m not looking forward to the emotional upheaval of finally saying goodbye to ER.

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Chiwetal Ejiofor as Thabo Mbeki. Channel 4

Channel 4‘s drama of that name, shown on Monday, was about the secret talks which led to negotiations between the African National Congress and South African government of the early 1990s, which in turn led to a democratic, non-racial election in 1994 and Nelson Mandela‘s rise to power.

That amounts to a lot of talking and the joy of this drama was in seeing how writer Paula Milne and director Pete Travis brought a tedious process to life. Naturally, we started with the sweepingly beautiful landscapes of South Africa itself. And there was Johnny Lee Miller (always a joy) travelling the dusty bush to find someone, anyone in a position of political influence to talk to the then banned ANC.

Miller played George Young as a buttoned up Englishman so perfectly that he spoke as if he’d a pole rammed up his arse. Until you remember Miller is struggling to contain the Scottish accent that brought him fame in Trainspotters. Elsewhere there were convincing performances from William Hurt as the Afrikaaner who reluctantly agreed to represent the white establishment in the secret talks and from Chiwetal Ejiofor as the likeable Thabo Mbeki and Clarke Peters (The Wire) as Mandela. The film had the feel of a taught thriller, with allegiances unfolding in a way that is rarely possible with historical drama.

Then, with the credits, came the pay-off that ensures this sort of retrospective drama passes the “so what?” test. The revelation that the ANC’s tactics during the talks which ultimately ended apartheid have since been shared with the IRA and Hamas. So a very specific set of political circumstances become almost universal. Good on C4 for putting money into this stuff.

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