Andrew Billen - The French connection

Television - A first-class documentary about immigration finally gets an airing by Andrew Billen

Mary Tudor's is not the only English heart on which Calais is for ever etched - not with booze at the prices its hypermarches offer. But if the Home Counties ferry gangs love Calais, the world's dispossessed love it more, mistakenly regarding it as the welcome mat lying between them and a land of freedom, justice and opportunity - qualities much admired by everyone except, perhaps, the land's own people: the British.

Marc Isaacs's haunting one-hour film, Calais: the last border, interweaved the stories of refugees marooned in Calais and interviews with day-tripping Brits at the French equivalent of a hot-dog stand. A Sutton woman was frustrated with the "visitors" her area was getting, the way their children got the best school places. A male voice said they lived in luxury hotels. Another performed a passable imitation of Peter Sellers doing a passable imitation of an Indian. Not that anyone, the Kentish woman added, wanted to think there'd be another Holocaust: "But there has to be some cut-off point."

The tragedy was that for the migrants befriended by Isaacs, Calais was the cut-off point, the end of a very hard road. Paul from Jamaica, whose father and even his great-grandfather were British citizens, had arrived by coach at Calais two days after a change in the rules made it necessary for him to have a visa. Paul's high hopes of finding a new life and a new wife (he made a pass at a Lithuanian girl on a similar ticket to nowhere) were reduced to a wish that a bus might come to take him home.

The crushing of Paul's optimism was, however, a minor tragedy next to that of Ijaz from Afghanistan. He wore a woolly hat on his head and the sweetest of smiles on his face, even when he wept. He daily prostrated himself towards Mecca, but his dreams flew eastwards to Folkestone. His entire family had been killed by a rocket attack on Kabul. In Calais, he was a double refugee - from his homeland and from the destroyed Sangatte camp. His home was now the length of concrete piping he slept in.

As the film wore on and Ijaz's attempts to smuggle himself to England continued to fail, his spirit dwindled. Puzzlingly, however, although it was presumably British allies who killed his family, he persisted in his dream that England would welcome him. Why not, wondered Isaacs, seek asylum in France? "No sir," he answered inscrutably, "I don't like French people." Clutching the smallest square of tissue beneath his nose, Ijaz doubted if he could bear more "difficulties".

For comic relief, or so it seemed at first, Isaacs turned to Tulia, a huge painted Brit with big glasses and bigger hair. Tulia, who ran her own agency, saw herself as England's first point of liaison with France. Business was not going well. She had never known things so quiet. "We've got a problem with the eurozone," she explained. Her best current wheeze was selling cheap eye operations to Brits queuing on the NHS, but her commission was less than handsome. Another scheme was to introduce British second-home buyers to her French bank, a plan her bank manager did not like quite enough to agree not to foreclose on her.

We slowly realised that Tulia's was not, after all, a funny story about an opportunistic expat. She, too, was a refugee: Jewish presumably, orphaned in Spain during the war and with a childhood so hellish that she had resolved when young never to bring a child into the world to suffer as she had done. As they faced losing their home, she and her devoted 85-year-old husband, Leslie, had a final idea: suicide. "The days of fighting battles are over."

Tulia's last potential client was Steve, a wide boy who'd never had a job back home but now owned the only English bar in Calais. Sadly, the French were proving immune to the aroma of bacon sandwiches, and le Zoo Bar was failing. And yet, instead of witnessing the despair that overwhelmed the programme's genuine refugees, we last saw Steve and his wife heading for Spain in a camper van to try again. Have EU citizenship, will travel.

This poignant film was made without a narrator and did not need one. The flocks of freely migrating birds were commentary enough. It was a film about rootlessness and loneliness - and love: Paul's for his imaginary Lithuanian girlfriend; Ijaz's for his dead family; Tulia and Leslie's. While the subject of immigration is topical, Isaacs's treatment was for all time.

This, I might add, was just as well, given that the film had rested unshown on the BBC's shelves since last summer. Its supporters assumed it would eventually be aired in a graveyard slot, but miraculously it was finally shown at 10pm last Sunday. In a strong week for television, I write about it not merely because it was excellent, but because so few such documentaries have recently been shown at a waking hour on BBC2. Its controller, Jane Root, who cancelled Forty Minutes and Modern Times seems to be having a change of heart. She has denounced the tyranny of overnight ratings and is commissioning a documentary season for this autumn. Good. When the BBC is dead and opened up, you shall find documentaries such as Calais lying in its heart.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times