Show Hide image

Review: Ways of Seeing - John Berger on the Small Screen (BFI)


Ways of Seeing: John Berger on the Small Screen
BFI Southbank, London SE1
Television dates like nothing else, as I was reminded the other day when I watched a DVD of Catweazle, the 1970s children’s drama about an 11th-century wizard who time travels to 1969. Oh, man. Slow? It made your average three-toed sloth, hanging quietly from a tree in some South American jungle, look like Lewis Hamilton. And yet once, Catweazle, in which the telephone was known as “the telling bone” and electricity as “elec-trickery!”, was my idea of gripping good fun.
Of course, television also induces nostalgia like no other art form. People talk of a golden age, when TV was “serious”, and to back up this argument inevitably rally the usual suspects, one of which is John Berger’s 1972 series, Ways of Seeing. Well, engaged in furious debate, you would, wouldn’t you? No one is going to contradict you for the simple reason that no one can check. Because of copyright issues, the series – in which Berger, drawing on arguments first outlined in Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, urges us to reconsider our responses to Caravaggio, Goya and the rest – has rarely been seen since. 
Thanks to BFI Southbank, however, I’m now equipped to cosh this example, if not the argument itself. The BFI is midway through a John Berger season, one that has included a sell-out screening of all four episodes of Ways of Seeing, followed by a Q&A with its director, Michael Dibb. How does it stand up? Badly. Shockingly badly, I think. Elec-trickery was there none. The films pull off the rare feat of being both tediously high-brow (Berger’s over-enunciated monologues make them feel like lectures) and hilariously patronising (ideas are repeated in the simplest of terms, the better that the dumbos at home might “get it”).
There is light relief, but this comes not by way of Manet or Brueghel, but courtesy of the 1970s. It’s mildly startling, now, to see Berger nonchalantly smoking on screen and to hear – see episode two – a bunch of lefty women in broderie anglaise talking uninterrupted for the best part of 12 minutes about nudes and narcissism. Even when what these women say doesn’t make an ounce of sense – quite often, as it happens – Berger doesn’t interrupt. In the same situation Paxman would have shouted something rude about bikini lines. 
There are those who insist that 21st-century documentary makers such as Adam Curtis (The Power of Nightmares, The Century of the Self) owe it all to Berger. Fair enough. But then, someone had to be the first to put ideas on screen as opposed to mere facts. I use the word “mere” deliberately in this context, because while Berger’s theory about painting – that its powerful allure now has more to do with market value than anything else – holds true today, no one could argue that Ways of Seeing is informative in a more general sense. In passing, Berger refers to Caravaggio as “a homosexual”. Will he tell us more? No, he won’t dirty his hands with that kind of thing. Exasperating. I longed for Andrew Graham-Dixon to bound on and give us the juice. 
This isn’t to say that the Berger season is a waste of time. The older I get, the more I treasure the BFI, eccentric repository of the arcane and the forgotten, of all things dusty and flickering. For Berger’s most devoted groupies, seeing his television work will make not a jot of difference: their love will accommodate its hoary badness. But a few will rethink, realising that they have conflated Ways of Seeing, the documentary, with Berger’s book of the same name (a finer thing altogether). More crucially, it will remind any moaning minnies who always look to television’s past how lucky we are. 
In Ways of Seeing, Berger asks the audience to imagine its response to Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (which depicts Spanish resistance fighters before a Napoleonic firing squad) if they’d come on it having switched over from “one of the other two channels”. There then follows a flash of what they might have been watching on ITV: girls in matching tartan dancing in preposterous formation. Eew! Praise God, then, not only for BBC4 but for 
Simon Cowell, too.
The Berger season continues with a screening of “Another Way of Telling” on 11 April

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.