Gilbey on Film: election special round two

Our critic's verdict on the (other) party political broadcasts.

Another week, another round of party election broadcasts. Presumably there are some people who still can't get enough of the sound of David Cameron saying the word "change." For that section of the public it was good news this week, as the Conservatives issued yet another five-minute campaign film featuring nothing but Dave. Dave in front of Parliament, Dave in messianic black-and-white stills that suggest Anton Corbijn shooting Bono on the Rattle and Hum tour.

My favourite bit occurs between 4:22 and 4:25, where Dave appears to have recently supped from the bottle marked "Drink Me". Either that or he is delivering his address in front of the world's tallest man.

This latest election broadcast is standard Davesville stuff, delivered with shirtsleeves rolled up to suggest a readiness to muck in. (An altogether more illuminating Cameron speech can be found here.) But it's the pushy, badgering tone which really curdles the soul: if that isn't the voice of someone setting out in painstaking terms precisely why you should let him take you in the shrubbery after the Freshers' Ball and show you his Big Society, then I'm George Osborne. (Note to Conservative Party members: George Osborne is your Chancellor.)

Party monster

Elsewhere, the BNP landed a prime-time BBC1 slot for its own mini-movie. It kicks off with the chilling sound of an air-raid siren, and stock footage from wartime Britain. Unfortunately it then switches to Nick Griffin sitting at a desk. Behind him we see a framed picture of Churchill and several shelves of leather-bound volumes, the content of which we can only guess at. (Chinua Achebe first editions? The collected TV Quick 1991-2009?)

Poor Nick spends all his screen time trying and failing to control his bizarrely ambiguous hand gestures as he tells us of his four gorgeous children. I counted ten different examples of involuntary movement in the first minute alone; you'd swear he was trying to describe a Henry Moore with his hands.

This restlessness goes beyond merely emphasising Nick's naturally sleazy demeanour, which is already a cross between Donald Plesence as Blofeld and a second-hand car salesman trying to flog you a Panzer tank. Rather, it reminded me of the scene in Total Recall when Arnold Schwarzenegger has to pass through Martian passport control disguised as a woman, only for his cover to start malfunctioning just as things are going his way. If the BNP leader is undergoing a similar deterioration, it begs the terrible question: what is on the inside of Nick Griffin? And can it be removed with normal household detergent?

From Nick kicking back in his study, we move to a photo-montage of BNP pet hates (mosques, hijabs, an East London street sign in both English and -- say it isn't so! -- Urdu) accompanied by the standard inflammatory fabrications ("Foreigners jump the queue for housing...") and off-the-wall connections ("Politicians lavish billions on asylum-seekers and rich bankers"). There is nothing funny about the BNP's policies and ideology, so it's oddly liberating to see their amateurism paraded so openly in this way.

The broadcast gives off the air of having been assembled around old Amstrads in the back-rooms of dubious hostelries, with someone's brother keeping a look-out; the atmosphere is less Triumph of the Will and more clapped-out Triumph Herald. Sure, they're racists and Holocaust deniers, but do they have to be such cheapskates?

The "talking heads" section is a good example of the shoddiness. There's a young woman pictured outside Café Rouge -- a damning indictment of the grubby French nation's attempt to flood our high streets with mid-priced Poulet Bretonne. "It's not politically correct," she says, "but I'm proud to be British, which is why I'm voting British National Party." The trick with those cue-cards, of course, is not to let your eyes move from left to right as you read from them.

But Ms Proud-to-be-British is practically Fiona Shaw as Hedda Gabler compared to the couple who appear next. "It was us pensioners that built this country..." says a disturbed-looking elderly man. Oh, do try not to appear as though someone is holding a gun to your head as you speak, there's a good chap. The silver-haired woman on his right looks even more terrified. Her hair was blonde before the camera started rolling, you know.

After a killer line from Rajinder Singh -- "I know the BNP very well and I admire them; they are only doing what is natural" -- we are treated to a cameo from Richard Barnbrook, who emphasises important words with little involuntary thrusts of his elbow, as though his hands, which we can't see, are kneading dough out of frame. Then Blofeld pops up to invite us to vote for the BNP to get our own back on politicians. Hmm, revenge or rationality? It's a toughie.

What swings it for me is the image on which the broadcast ends -- a freeze-frame of a supposedly happy BNP-supporting family. Look at the still below, where it appears the youngest child is gripping his sister's arm with one hideously enlarged hand. Is this what we want? Mutant children? You decide. I'm just disappointed that Nick reneged on his promise to eat Marmite on screen.

bnp 

Cliff hanger

The BNP's pitiful effort resembles Avatar next to the English Democrats' campaign film. Someone who resembles Ben Fogle appears in a couple of obvious locations -- outside Parliament, or within sight of the white cliffs of Dover -- to talk us flatly through various unconvincing reasons why England should be completely autonomous. Hands up who resisted the temptation during the cliff-top scenes to call out to our presenter: "Back a bit, back a bit"? Me neither.)

The capper comes when, realising that he hasn't persuaded us, he throws in a bribe: "Oh -- and there's one other proposal I'm sure you'll all support. [I love that mock-spontaneous "Oh".] An extra bank holiday." You know -- for St George's Day. Buying votes with bank holidays, eh? Well, it's original. Can I swap mine for a toaster?

 

An inconvenient truth

After the crudity of the Conservatives, BNP and English Democrats, the soothing visual simplicity of the Green Party feels refreshing and comparatively sophisticated. No hatchet-faced party leaders, no flannel-spouting presenters with dishcloth charisma. Just three rectangular coloured blocks -- red, blue and yellow -- which are joined by a jaunty, rolling green circle representing the only party "who can really make a change."

My favourite colour is green, so I'm already hooked. And this is a winning aesthetic approach. The green circle morphs into a cross (representing healthcare), a radiator (during the bit about caring for the elderly), a safe's combination lock (behind which is stashed money that would otherwise go on bankers' bonuses) and a thought-bubble (the only misjudgement here: it looks more like a storm-cloud made of spinach).

So on top of all the wonderful things they're planning to do, the Green Party proves it is also flexible. Pliable. Easily moulded. Gets in the carpet. Turns stale if left out overnight and has to be thrown away. Oh dear. Maybe this isn't so simple after all.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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GM should not be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations

People may be opposed to GM crops and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But people facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice.

My parents researched malnutrition and under-nutrition in India, especially among children, and found that many diets recommended by Western nutritionists were in fact completely inapplicable to the poor. So they formulated cheap, healthy diets based on indigenous food with which people were familiar. Yet despite their many other efforts, a quarter of people in India and nearly one in nine people around the world do not have enough food to live a healthy active life.

The World Bank estimates that we will need to produce about 50 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a population of nine billion people. And the past 50 years have seen agricultural productivity soar – corn yields in the US have doubled, for example. But this has come with sharp increases in the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water which has brought its own problems. There is also no guarantee that this rate of increase in yields can be maintained.

Just as new agricultural techniques and equipment spurred on food production in the Middle Ages, and scientific crop breeding, fertilisers and pesticides did so for the Green Revolution of the 20th century, so we must rely on the latest technology to boost food production further. Genetic modification, or GM, used appropriately with proper regulation, may be part of the solution. Yet GM remains a highly contentious topic of debate where, unfortunately, the underlying facts are often obscured.

Views on GM differ across the world. Almost half of all crops grown in the US are GM, whereas widespread opposition in Europe means virtually no GM crops are grown there. In Canada, regulation is focused on the characteristics of the crop produced, while in the EU the focus is on how it has been modified. GM crops do not damage the environment by nature of their modification; GM is merely a technology, and it is the resulting product that we should be concerned about and regulate, just as we would any new product.

There are outstanding plant scientists who work on GM in the UK, but the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have declared their opposition to GM plants. Why is there such strong opposition in a country with great trust in scientists?

About 15 years ago when GM was just emerging, its main proponents and many of the initial products were from large multinational corporations – even though it was publicly funded scientists who produced much of the initial research. Understandably, many felt GM was a means for these corporations to impose a monopoly on crops and maximise their profits. This perception was not helped by some of the practices of these big companies, such as introducing herbicide resistant crops that led to the heavy use of herbicides – often made by the same companies.

The debate became polarised, and any sense that the evidence could be rationally assessed evaporated. There have been claims made about the negative health effects and economic costs of GM crops – claims later shown to be unsubstantiated. Today, half of those in the UK do not feel well informed about GM crops.

Everyday genetic modification

GM involves the introduction of very specific genes into plants. In many ways this is much more controlled than the random mutations that are selected for in traditional plant breeding. Most of the commonly grown crops that we consider natural actually bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors, having been selectively modified through cross-breeding over the thousands of years that humans have been farming crops – in a sense, this is a form of genetic modification itself.

In any case, we accept genetic modification in many other contexts: insulin used to treat diabetes is now made by GM microbes and has almost completely replaced animal insulin, for example. Many of the top selling drugs are proteins such as antibodies made entirely by GM, and now account for a third of all new medicines (and over half of the biggest selling ones). These are used to treat a host of diseases, from breast cancer to arthritis and leukaemia.



Millions of acres growing GM crops worldwide. Fafner/ISSSA, CC BY-SA

GM has been used to create insect-resistance in plants that greatly reduces or even eliminates the need for chemical insecticides, reducing the cost to the farmer and the environment. It also has the potential to make crops more nutritious, for example by adding healthier fats or more nutritious proteins. It’s been used to introduce nutrients such as beta carotene from which the body can make vitamin A – the so-called golden rice – which prevents night blindness in children. And GM can potentially create crops that are drought resistant – something that as water becomes scarce will become increasingly important.

More than 10% of the world’s arable land is now used to grow GM plants. An extensive study conducted by the US National Academies of Sciences recently reported that there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop since the widespread commercialisation of GM products 18 years ago. It also reported that there was no conclusive evidence of environmental problems resulting from GM crops.

GM is a tool, and how we use it is up to us. It certainly does not have to be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations. We can and should have adequate regulations to ensure the safety of any new crop strain (GM or otherwise) to both ourselves and the environment, and it is up to us to decide what traits in any new plant are acceptable. People may be opposed to GM crops for a variety of reasons and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But the one in nine people in poor countries facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice. The availability of cheap, healthy and nutritious food for them is a matter of life and death.

Alongside other improvements in farming practices, genetic modification is an important part of a sustainable solution to global food shortages. However, the motto of the Royal Society is nullius in verba; roughly, “take nobody’s word for it”. We need a well-informed debate based on an assessment of the evidence. The Royal Society has published GM Plants: questions and answers which can play its part in this. People should look at the evidence – not just loudly voiced opinions – for themselves and make up their own minds.

The ConversationVenki Ramakrishnan is President of the Royal Society, and Professor and Deputy Director at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article