Not-so-funny face

Television - Andrew Billen on the serious miscasting of an old Python

One of the truisms wheeled out on The Human Face (Wednesdays, 9.10pm, BBC1) is that human faces transmit emotion. Once you have assimilated this, you need to go back and read the dyspeptic interview its presenter, John Cleese, gave to the Telegraph recently, in which he said that making the documentary series had been a "pretty ghastly experience". Now, children, you have the reason why episode one was also a ghastly experience to watch.

At first glance, spending 200 minutes examining the workings of the face might seem a bad idea. But documentary-makers have backed more obscure horses than this and got away with them. Every now and again I have half-wondered why we judge people at, as it were, face value - why praising a woman's smile, for instance, is considered polite but praising her breasts is taboo. I once saw an obituary in the Independent which, by some computer cock-up, was accompanied by a photograph not of the subject's face but of his paunchy stomach. In what way, I thought, was this part of his anatomy less "him" than his face (after all, by the time we are 40 we all deserve the tummy we have got)?

The answer to these questions was provided by the first episode of The Human Face. A face has 44 muscles, making it capable of 7,000 expressions. A breast (and the majority of stomachs) has no muscles and is therefore incapable of expressing personality. So I have that sorted out; and there were some other interesting, anecdote-sized nuggets in this opening film. A kid born with Mobius syndrome had an operation that meant for the first time she could smile. A disputatious couple from England were sent to the "Love Lab" in Seattle to learn how better to read each other's faces. A Cambridge undergraduate who suffered from Asperger's explained to Cleese how he had consciously to compute what his fellow students' expressions meant. In Japan, a school has been set up to teach inscrutable Oriental salesmen to smile, and we saw them practising with chopsticks gripped between their teeth. It was not astonishing stuff, but enough, at least, to share with a drinking companion over a second pint.

So why was the show such hard work to watch? Cleese was in no doubt. Auntie had substituted a predictable, typical BBC science prog for, to quote the Telegraph's paraphrase, "a very funny, mildly subversive overhaul of the traditional documentary". "Why," he asked, "did they ask me to do it in the first place?"

The idea that tiers of BBC executives interfered in the inspired innovations of a comic genius is, of course, highly plausible. But if you saw the programme, you'll know what I'm about to write: that it was the traditional material that worked and the fooling that didn't. Cleese's links, in which he appeared as a nutty university professor aided by his lovely assistant "Janet", as played by Liz Hurley, were terrible. The semi-illustrative sketches he introduced, about "pedestrian rage" (a kind of remake of the Python's Hell's Grannies) or a soap opera starring immobile-faced crocodiles, were desperate, too.

In his professorial guise, he snapped at Hurley's efforts to express emotions and said he knew they should have hired Judi Dench. Hurley put her tongue out. Cleese's rant at the end complaining about the lack of face-to-face human association these days - preceded by worrying footage of Cleese kicking in computer screens - was curtailed when Hurley threw a bucket of cold water over him. As the old Cleese would have said: who writes this rubbish?

"Oh, don't be silly and pompous. You make yourself sound so ridiculous," Hurley told her master mock-crossly, stressing the unintentional theme of the programme, which was an examination of Cleese's emotional well-being.

He did not look well. For a presenter of a programme on human expression, let alone for this country's greatest clown, Cleese was curiously unable to configure his own face into distinct variations. Beneath his greying moustache, his mouth made a variety of grimaces but when it asked Chris, the Asperger's syndrome patient, what they were miming, I was at such a loss that I wondered if I had contracted the disorder myself.

Cleese started out funny - he was probably the only really inspired member of the Pythons - got funnier as Basil Fawlty and then something happened to make him lose his faith in the validity of English humour. After his last successful and sustained comedy performance in A Fish Called Wanda in 1988, he wrote himself into increasingly ill-fitting roles: as an advocate for the SDP, as a toned Bacardi commercial model, as an author of relationship manuals. With The Human Face, he seems to have entered a sinister new phase as prophet. One can only hope that the damage will be confined to an acceptable but minor science documentary series that should have been delivered in sober 30-minute chunks, and will not spread to his professional reputation.

Cleese said in his interview that making the fourth programme, on fame, was a good experience. I hope his good mood transmits itself and the final episode leaves us with warmer memories of him. By the looks of it, however, he has helped the BBC deliver TV's first turkey of the year - a genuine achievement in the week when Crossroads returned.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

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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.