LFF #8 -- Behind the Rainbow

From the London Film Festival: a brilliant investigation of South Africa since apartheid

Behind the Rainbow
dir: Jihan El-Tahri

I'll admit it: I wasn't sure how interesting a two-hour documentary on recent South African politics would be, but this really is a great film. Jihan El-Tahri's investigation of what's happened to South Africa since the end of apartheid captures one of those rare moments in a country's history when the hidden workings of power are suddenly exposed.

The film centres around the story of how Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, once close comrades in the underground anti-apartheid movement, became fierce rivals, the latter eventually unseating the former as president of South Africa. What El-Tahri emphasises, however, is just how much continuity there was between the regimes before and after apartheid: while F W De Klerk and his fellow National Party politicians stood down in 1994, many key posts in the civil service, the army, the judiciary and business remained in the hands of apartheid-era administrators. Meanwhile, the former ANC freedom fighters, who were once driven by revolutionary ideals, ensconced themselves as a new, multiracial technocracy.

Through interviews with most of the leading players, El-Tahri, a French-Egyptian director, builds a gripping, if depressingly familiar, narrative. Under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, followed by that of Mbeki, austerity measures to deal with the after-effects of sanctions meant that a programme to redistribute wealth and provide public services for all was shelved. At the same time, billions of rand were spent on buying weapons, with the excuse that these purchases would benefit the economy. (Those "benefits" in new jobs and investment never materialised.)

On the one hand, all these compromises helped South Africa avoid the bankruptcy and civil strife that hit Zimbabwe after independence. On the other, the majority of South Africans remained as poor as ever. After Zuma was sacked from the government amid allegations of corruption in 2005, many poor South Africans came to see him as a champion of their interests, even though he had been as much part of the elite as Mbeki was.

When South Africa plunged into turmoil last year around Zuma's fractious campaign to win control of the ANC (and subsequently the presidency), it was hard to shake the feeling that much of the western media saw this as a return to type for Africa: an atavistic resurgence of the violence that has plagued other countries on the continent. What El-Tahri patiently demonstrates here is that it was nothing of the sort.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

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 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses