Breaking the silence

Stephen Fry proves that celebrity docs don't have to be cynical or simplistic

<strong>Stephen Fry

I'm allergic to documentaries that are presented by celebrities. Not long ago, one of the Geldof progeny made a film about the veil which, simplistic to the point of insult, so enraged me that I had a nasty dream about her involving a burqa and various garden tools. (I'd better not say more; I don't want Bob coming round and shouting the odds.) Then again, some "celebrities" - admittedly it feels like a minority, these days - are people whose names we know because they're good at something. Stephen Fry falls into this camp, and he's good at not only one thing, but everything (don't all shout "Apart from theatre work": that's mean). Even so, I wasn't predisposed to like HIV and Me (2 and 9 October, 9pm). Fry is not HIV-positive, so its title seemed narcissistic, unless it was just a cynical hint that he was about to reveal otherwise, and thus grab all the voyeurs who get off on celeb misery come test result time.

But perhaps it's me that's cynical. Once I had seen the film, my feeling was that if even one fetid Jeremy Kyle addict saw a trailer for HIV and Me (the one I caught showed Fry taking a blood test) and was sufficiently intrigued to tune in, this was cause for celebration. A weird radio silence surrounds HIV, although infection rates even in the UK are rising rapidly - a silence that is contributing to complacency and, ultimately, death rates. Fry's film was informative and fearless. It was also deeply human, its horrifying statistics brought to life by people brave enough to say that they have the virus on television. I loved the way Fry talked to them. In contrast to most patronising hospital-touring politicians, he doesn't adjust his accent when talking to those who didn't, unlike him, attend public school or Cambridge. He also exudes a great and unfakeable kindness.

Why aren't gay men using condoms? Why are infection rates in Africa higher than in Europe? Because some gay men think that drugs will save them and, worse, regard HIV-positive status as a badge of honour; because in sub-Saharan Africa, 20-40 per cent of adults have multiple or concurrent partners, a pattern that increases the rate of infection more drastically than serial monogamy. These facts are uncomfortable, but Fry was unwilling to dance round them. The consequences of doing otherwise are too great. Many patients are resistant to the drugs; others will succumb to Aids-related illnesses in spite of them.

If this makes his film sound relentless, however, that's wrong. There were blackly funny moments, too. In the UK, half of the 7,000 new infections every year are contracted through straight sex. Fry investigated a case in Doncaster where a nightclub bouncer who died of Aids was feared to have infected hundreds of local women. Were Doncaster's females all reckless binge drinkers? "It's worse in Barnsley," read the newspaper headline.

I mentioned Jeremy Kyle, who has been much in the news: a judge called his ITV show "a human form of bear-baiting". So, it's a good time for Jennifer Saunders to launch her Thursday-night (9pm) comedy The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle (Vyle/Kyle . . . do you see what she did there?). But there are two problems. The first is that Kyle's show - so aggressive, so outlandish - is probably beyond satire. Second, Saunders and her co-writer, the TV psychologist Dr Tanya Byron, have dished up a quite outstandingly lumpen script, and have peopled it with stock types whose tics are so munificent, you can feel your migraine aura coming on even as you watch.

Chief among them is Miranda Richardson as Helena, Vivienne's ruthless but inept producer. The "twist" is that, behind the scenes, Helena and Vivienne are as dysfunctional as the emotionally incontinent morons ("I want a vagina but I can't kick the crack") they deride on set. So Vivienne has an apparently gay husband, and Helena's child spends so little time with her that she speaks only Spanish, like her nanny. Laugh count: zero. If Saunders and Byron were ever to appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show it would say beneath their names: "We want a smash hit, but no one except our husbands and the fools who commissioned us thinks we are funny."

Pick of the week

Arena: Tribute Bands – Into the Limelight
6 October, 10.30pm, BBC2
Uplifting film with Keith, a man who pretends to be Kurt Cobain.

The Cult of the Suicide Bomber
Continues 8 October, 8pm, Channel 4
Robert Baer, ex-CIA agent, looks at what motivates these attackers.

30 Rock
11 October, 10.45pm, Channel 5
America’s hottest new comedy.

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 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.