Unsentimental education

Two programmes show the right and the wrong ways to revive an old idea

<strong>Oz and James D

My big prediction for television in 2009: there will be lots of programmes about recycling, and lots of recycling in general. In fact, it has already begun, and that's even before Kirstie Allsopp starts telling us how to make a bar of soap from carefully harvested earwax and an ancient bottle of something icky by Davidoff (the Channel 4 presenter will front a show about crafts later this year). On Tuesday, for instance, the BBC treated us to Oz and James Drink to Britain (6 January, 8pm). This is not precisely a repeat - technically the series is new - but it is a simple rehashing of an idea that the presenters have already dished up to us twice before. First, Oz Clarke and James May went to France to bicker about booze. Then they went to California to bicker about it. Now, they are travelling Britain doing it. I hate them both, and I hate their pathetic, contrived, patronising, clichéd, unfunny travelogues.

May, the Top Gear presenter, pretends to be a moron, and Clarke, the wine writer, pretends to be an effete twat (how far are they pretending?) and together they make drink-related "discoveries". In the case of Oz and James Drink to Britain, these predictable unearthings mostly involve the joys of real ales, of which there are (surprise) very many in these sceptred isles, though there is also always a moment when, on the road, they make some other kind of discovery. For the purposes of our entertainment, the two are living in extremely close proximity for the duration of this trip, and thus the eye of the camera will inevitably fall on the hilarious sight of, say, Clarke's underpants, curled like a sleeping cat on the floor of their tiny and very rubbish caravan. (I keep looking out for May's hairdryer, but no joy so far.)

Whoever conceived this aberration (some agent?) clearly meant for Clarke and May to play that hoary comedy standby, the odd couple. In reality, they are dreadfully alike, all compacted bachelor tics and giant, swinging egos. The only way I could endure part one - in which they drove north - was by hoping that some fine, pissed Yorkshireman would take exception and push over their silly doll's house of a caravan with them in it. Or worse.

This past week, the BBC also screened a new adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank in five half-hour episodes (5-9 January, 7pm). It was wonderful: a triumph of casting. The danger with adapting the diary is that writers and actors alike make the cast of characters too sympathetic, rather than letting us see them through Anne's eyes. It is perfectly understandable why they might make this mistake - these were real people, after all, murdered in the worst crime of the 20th century - but to do so is to miss the point. They drove Anne nuts, and thus they were the moving spirits behind her writing: its animators, if you like.

In Deborah Moggach's version, everyone in the secret annexe was allowed to be horribly irritating - and thus doubly human. Lesley Sharp played "Petronella van Daan" (she, her lumpish husband, Hermann - played brilliantly by Ron Cook - and their doe-eyed son, Peter, shared the Franks' hiding place) as triumphantly brassy, like a market stallholder who once spotted a Vermeer during a house clearance. Tamsin Greig, more bravely, made Mrs Frank so numbly long-suffering that you could almost feel her sighs blowing against your cheeks; certainly, you knew exactly why her daughter found her so maddening: "Father says I should be nicer to her, but sometimes I want to slap her across the face." Best of all, Ellie Kendrick filled Anne with an energy so at odds with her situation as a prisoner of just 500 square feet of airless space that a part of me could never - not even in the final 20 minutes - believe she was going to die.

Before this adaptation began, I read a couple of previews which suggested that another retelling of Anne's story, however finely done, was somehow unnecessary. This is wrong. It will always come to someone, somewhere, as startlingly new, especially if they are young, and for the rest of us, it can always be made more vital. We can wonder at it all over again. We can remember.

Pick of the week

Starts 12 January, 9pm, ITV1
Drama. A murderer flees her past.

The City Uncovered With Evan Davis
Starts 14 January, 9pm, BBC2
The grim web is detangled by the Today programme's spider-in-chief.

Could You Eat an Elephant?
14 January, 10pm, Channel 4
The chefs Fergus Henderson and Jeremy Lee dine on strange beasts.

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 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.