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Television

The American way

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

To the Americas this week, and first to the land of the free and the home of the brave: Gay to Straight (Monday, BBC3) examined the practice of ‘gay conversion therapy’; Unreported World (Friday, Channel 4) investigated the political power of unregulated talk radio; and Inventing the Indians (Sunday, BBC4) explored the appropriation of the Native American Indian by American popular culture.

Gay to Straight was presented by someone called Stacey Dooley (no, me neither) on a channel called BBC3 (yes, but not very often). Dooley is a sympathetic, friendly, kindhearted soul, and even the most reticent of teenage boys would be willing to tell her his secrets. TJ is 19 and battling with feelings and urges that his therapist has advised him to call ‘same sex attraction’ and to think of it as a ‘treatable condition’. TJ is ashamed and confused and so are his parents: homosexuality (or ‘the one thing I would not tolerate’, as his father called it) is irreconcilable with the family’s Christian beliefs. The therapist is confident that with sufficient vigilance and determination TJ can keep his mind in check. Yes, that’s the plan: just stop wanting to have sex with men, TJ, and start fancying women instead. ‘It doesn’t sit comfy with me,’ whispered Dooley to the camera.

Further east, Unreported World: Talk-Radio Nation found Krishnan Guru-Murthy discovering the limits of freedom of speech on US radio: ‘So you can say, “Muslims should be bombed”,’ he queried a studio producer, ‘but you can’t say “tits”?’


‘Yes.’
‘And you can say, “Gays should be strung up”, but you can’t say, “cock”?’
‘Right.’
‘That’s a bit weird, isn’t it?’

Guru-Murthy took a guest slot on air with ‘South Florida’s most heavily armed talk show host’ Joyce Kaufman, but he was only half-introduced — Kaufman was unable to pronounce his name. ‘Krishnan’s in the studio,’ she said sulkily, ‘with a very long name.’ Guru-Murthy gave an astonished titter. He was asked to explain British rules about political bias in the media. ‘You couldn’t just go on air,’ he said, ‘and espouse your political view…we have to be duly impartial.’ ‘Gosh,’ Kaufman gasped, ‘I couldn’t survive in that environment.’ Really, Joyce? You couldn’t survive? Not so heavily armed after all, then, eh?

I don’t think Rich Hall would get on very well with Joyce Kaufman (although it’s a meeting I’d like to watch, preferably from a safe distance and wearing a flame-retardant suit). Hall is an American comedian of the ‘everything stinks’ variety, quite often to be heard on Radio 4 and sometimes to be seen on Have I Got News for You. When it comes to presenting TV programmes he adopts a subject, tags it and plants a flag in it: Rich Hall’s The Dirty South, Rich Hall’s How the West Was Lost and this time, Rich Hall’s Inventing the Indians. Aided by Dallas Goldtooth, a Native American comedian who provided validity, support and dry good humour, Hall — enraged, disgusted, unsparing — gave us a history of stolen identity from The Last of the Mohicans (‘spectacular historical misrepresentation’) via Stagecoach (‘no historical perspective’) to modern day ‘Generokee’: ‘Apache Pizza’, ‘Red Man Chewing Tobacco’ and ‘dreamcatcher’ tattoos.

Hall’s outrage burns with a high flame but he is also very funny, and regular interventions from his cohorts prevented self-indulgence. It’s a fascinating subject, and perfect for a television film: plenty of people to talk to, lots of vivid footage, a wealth of startling and tragic historical detail, and any number of locations to review and examine. The history is vicious, astonishing and immensely sad. Goldtooth tried to explain the gulf of understanding that will always divide native from settler: ‘The majority of indigenous peoples have creation stories that place them in a certain location at a certain time. It’s not just, “Oh, my people moved here.” We came out of that mountain, right there.’

Rich Hall behaves as if he has taken the camera hostage; Michael Palin as if the reverse were true. After nearly 25 years of trotting round the planet with a film crew, Palin still gives the impression that he has been dragged from the choir to perform a reluctant solo. It is an artful strategy: his ambitions and anxieties seem so modest that somehow the whopping budget and cocoon of safety nets slip to the back of our mind — at least, the part of our mind which hasn’t fallen asleep (Brazil with Michael Palin, BBC1, Wednesday). Will he get any rest in a hammock? Will he be nipped in the gonads by a pink dolphin? Will he buy a bottle of herbal sex potion? But then came the strike of an oddly resonant note: a chief of the rainforest-dwelling Yanomami tribe was describing his relationship with the Brazilian government: ‘They don’t ask us, the indigenous people. They just tell us what they are going to do with our land. They don’t consult us.’ Two hundred years, 5,000 miles; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


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