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The body politic

After Rome: Holy War and Conquest (BBC2, Saturday); Summer Heights High (BBC3, Monday)

10 December 2008

12:00 AM

10 December 2008

12:00 AM

If I had been given a monkey for every time someone had told me knowledgeably that Boris Johnson was a comical buffoon unfit for high office, I’d be able to open a very large ape house.

It annoys me not just because it’s not true but also because of what it says about the stupidity of the chattering classes and the potency of received ideas. Gordon Brown: prudent economist. Ken Livingstone: lovable, cheeky-chappy newt fancier. Islam: religion of peace. Etc. Most of the people who believed –— or even continue to believe — in these memes have votes, and this ought to worry the rest of us greatly.

The idiots are even more wrong about Boris. In the coming months, he’s going to have to make some very difficult political decisions, and perhaps none more difficult than how far he dares oppose the erection of that mighty Islamist propaganda tool — aka the 70,000 capacity Super Mosque — bang next to the main Tube station servicing the London Olympics stadium. If he’s going to do this without being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, he needs all that (very) silent majority of moderate Muslims out there to think he’s a jolly good egg who loves their religion of peace greatly.


This is why, of course, it was so helpful in that wonderfully entertaining Who Do You Think You Are? episode that he was able to wheel out a Muslim great-grandfather. And why, when offered a chance to make a two-part BBC series about the birth of the ‘clash of civilisations’, he didn’t suck his teeth and go, ‘Oooh. I dunno. Might be a bit of a conflict of interest there, what with me being a politician with a large Muslim electorate to avoid offending. If you want something reasonable and balanced, might I suggest my former colleague Mark Steyn, instead.’

It’s not that Boris is a bad TV presenter. Au contraire. His scripts (obviously written himself) are witty, punchy, erudite and impressively un-dumbed down; his lovely white-blond hair and tanned, manly arms and interesting jackets are ever a pleasure to watch; he doesn’t have any infuriating tics; if he wasn’t Mayor, he could easily be the new Simon Schama, Alan Whicker and Stephen Fry rolled into one. But he is a politician and there’s the rub. A politician’s job, before all else, is to be politic. No matter how straight-talking he is, there’ll always be a suspicion that he’s holding something back, mindful of career safety.

In After Rome: Holy War and Conquest (BBC2, Saturday) his agreeable trot round the great churches, palaces, mosques and crusader castles of Istanbul, Syria, Palestine, and Andalucia, Boris met lots of nice, moderate Muslims (professors and pretty girls remarkably unobscured by hijabs) and said all the right things, viz: crikey, those Alhambra-era Muslims weren’t half civilised; and, goodness, what a murderous shower those Christian crusaders were. It’s what he diplomatically didn’t say that was the slight worry.

Averroes, for example (aka Ibn Rushd). Boris rightly identified him as one of the great 12th-century heroes — the Islamic scholar who helped keep the wisdom of the ancients alive with his commentaries on Aristotle. But in order to big Averroes up, Boris had to downplay the work both of the Eastern Church, and of all the Western Christian monasteries — the one at Mont St Michel, for example — in also preserving that knowledge. This is not unakin to the modern trend of praising Mary Seacole at the expense of Florence Nightingale. You can perfectly well understand the good intentions behind it. But ought not an historian’s duty be to the ugly truth rather than the sensitivities of chippy minorities?

Summer Heights High (BBC3, Monday) is one of the funniest things on TV, and I almost want to sack myself for not having discovered this earlier in the series. It’s one of those very deadpan spoof documentaries in the manner of The Office, set in an Australian state high school, with the versatile scriptwriter Chris Lilley playing three of the main characters — a moronic Tongan called Jonah Talua, a bitchy, manipulative private school exchange student Ja’mie King, and the camp, fantastically tactless drama teacher Mr G.

In the latest episode, Mr G heard that a Year 11 student Annabelle Dickson had died of a drugs overdose, and decided that this would be the ideal opportunity for a school drama celebrating her brief life called Annabelle Dickson: The Musical. The head gives the go-ahead, provided it’s done tastefully. Cut to scenes of Mr G, composing some of the songs: ‘She’s a slut on a Saturday night’ and ‘E. E. E. E. Ecstasy’. I do like the Aussies. They seem to have a rugged common-sense and cheery loathing for PC so painfully absent from most of the rest of the Western world. Summer Heights High makes me respect them even more.


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