Africa in primetime: What is the BBC telling the British public?

Two months ago, there was David Attenborough’s wildlife documentary series, Africa. Two weeks ago was a Comic Relief film set largely in South Africa and Mozambique. And last week there was the Top Gear Africa special, in Uganda and Tanzania. Three BBC shows, all firmly in the mainstream of UK media, bringing Africa to a mass popular audience in primetime slots – these were not obscure and worthy BBC4 documentaries. So how did they portray the continent?

The trailer for David Attenborough’s latest series had stunning landscapes, beautifully shot and teeming with wildlife. And, at the end, a three-word voice-over: “This is Africa.”

It’s a bold statement, phrased like that with no qualification: this is Africa. It’s not “this is wild Africa”, or animal Africa, just “Africa.” Can Africa really be defined by its wildlife?

The programme itself was everything that should be expected from the BBC and David Attenborough: breathtaking vistas, incredible footage of the wildlife, fascinating and moving. We saw a vicious fight between two giraffes, the desperate efforts of an elephant to save her young baby, gorillas, desert ants, and much, much more.

Perhaps it’s unfair or petty to criticise a programme like this for nothing more than a trailer voice-over, but imagine a similar trailer for a programme about reindeer in Scandinavia, wolves in Bavaria and wild boars in France: “this is Europe”. It’s not that it would be insulting, but that it would sound ridiculous. Africa can, apparently, be defined by it’s wildlife, but you would never do the same for Europe. Not the most dreadful offence, sure, but needless.

In a different league was a new TV film for Comic Relief, Mary and Martha, starring Hilary Swank (as Mary) and Brenda Blethyn (Martha). Written by Richard Curtis, the man behind Four Weddings, Love Actually, Notting Hill, Mr Bean, Blackadder, and much more besides, its pedigree was strong.

The early scenes were encouraging, dotted with little subversions to challenge the viewer’s expectations. A South African minibus driver hooked up his smartphone to play Dolly Parton on the car stereo, for example, refusing the suggested Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But when that minibus took it’s American mother-and-son passengers out to their new home surrounded by wildlife, it became clear that this show was sticking firmly to familiar territory. I don’t think we saw any more shots of modernity or urban Africa after the minibus drove away from the airport. Cliché piled upon cliché: the safari lodge, the orphanage, the beach holiday, the volunteer, the hard-working nurse, and yes, the tragic deaths from malaria.

The point of the film was to raise awareness of malaria. Mary and Martha each lost their son to the disease, but found solace in each other and a new mission to “do something”, eventually persuading a US Senate committee to “do more”. But did it really need to be so condescending?

Worst of all was the complete lack of any significant African character in the story. There was a driver, a nurse, a few people working at the orphanage where a young British volunteer was based, but these were all peripheral characters. No attempt was made to give them any depth – nothing about their motivations, hopes and fears, nothing to make them human. They were no more than part of the backdrop, alongside sweeping rural vistas and the wildlife. It was tempting to conclude that the film’s real message was “we need to combat malaria so privileged westerners can visit Africa without dying.”

Malaria is an important issue. But is the only way to persuade British and American viewers to watch something about Africa to give them a film that only has British and American characters? A film that reinforces so many stereotypes, not least the view that African problems can only be solved by nice, kind and generous (but incredibly patronising) westerners?

I expected better from Curtis. Quite apart from his incredible screen-writing CV, he is also the founder of Comic Relief and has stayed closely involved with the organisation for 28 years. Surely, by now, he must understand Africa better than this. Have we really not moved on at all from Geldof’s Africa: “where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow”

Finally, there was Top Gear, with two hour-long programmes filmed in Uganda and Tanzania. We had Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May in a road trip in cheap, second-hand estate cars. They were supposedly “looking for the real source of the Nile,” but it was really just an excuse to have some fun driving around East Africa.

There was an ill-considered air of nostalgia for an era of British explorers and empire-building, which the repeated use of music from the film Zulu did nothing to dispel. And they treated Africa as a playground for their childish pranks and games.

But despite all that, the Africa they showed was far more real, far more honest than the earnest, serious programmes of Richard Curtis and David Attenborough. We saw the chaos of urban traffic jams and the burnt-out remnants of traffic accidents (which kill roughly as many people as malaria), we saw small-town marketplaces and run-down hotels, we saw the dreadful state of some rural roads and we saw construction work progressing at pace. Best of all, we saw real interactions with local people – fleeting, but real, and encompassing a wide range of genuine human responses, from generous assistance when stuck in the mud to a bag of crisps snatched through an open car window.

It was childish, yes, but that’s the Top Gear way, everywhere. Quite rightly, they didn’t treat Africa any different from how they treat the US. It was shallow, yes, but at least it was honest, not patronising, not reductionist.

Am I holding up these programmes to different standards, demanding more from Curtis than from Clarkson and co?

Well, first of all, surely Curtis himself, as a serious writer, would want to do better than a loud-mouthed entertainer like Clarkson?

And second, no, I’m not. In all it’s earnestness and for all it’s good intentions, Mary and Martha was shockingly bad. Condescension on that scale, and in a programme that set out with the explicit objective to inform and educate, is unforgivable. Curtis, and the BBC, should be thoroughly ashamed of this programme. Top Gear was at least honest.

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