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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.