IN THE cold post-holiday weeks of January, a two-hour film about the realities of drug use in America might not sound like an enticing prospect.
STORYVILLE: The House I Live In
Monday, BBC 4, 10pm
Tomorrow, BBC1, 6:30pm
MY MAD FAT DIARY
Monday, E4, 10pm
Unless you heard the fuss about The House I Live In when it was shown at the Sundance Festival last year, when Eugene Jarecki’s documentary received wild acclaim and the Grand Jury Prize.
Showing in a Storyville slot, his is, in a sense, propaganda, its title a deliberate nod to a 1945 film involving Frank Sinatra. The then-Young Blue Eyes preached and sang about racial harmony in America, specifically against persecution of Jews. Around then Jarecki’s parents had fled Europe to make a life for themselves in the US, he tells us, before streaming a mixture of images: Martin Luther King and civil rights protests, people being arrested, confused faces, President Obama. The link is both subtle and obvious: his case is that the drug laws are weighted disproportionately against young black men, that the sentences handed down for non-violent offences are too high and that the War On Drugs is beyond lost, it’s become a new form of racial persecution.
It may not be a case you instinctively buy, but it’s certainly easy for Jarecki to show that the present situation is untenable. Statistics fly: the USA jails more people than Saudi Arabia or China, with 45 per cent of the world’s prisoners yet only five per cent of the world’s population, more than 45 million arrests since 1971. It costs an insane amount, over $1 trillion since then, a figure hard to even imagine. And for what? Illegal drug use rates have barely shifted.
“It would be one thing if it was draconian and it worked,” says David Simon, the creator of The Wire, its portrait of the pointlessness of the war on drugs based on his years as an old school investigative journalist. “But it’s draconian and it doesn’t work and it just leads to more.” Simon has plenty to say in this coruscating documentary, along with a succession of prison officers, convicted drug dealers, users, relatives, politicians, judges and lawyers. And, while obviously they’ve been deliberately chosen, they are all saying the same thing: this is a terrible mess.
Most touchingly, Jarecki interviews former housekeeper Nanny Jeter (her name, not her job description), the matriarch of a black family he grew up alongside. Its members have had repeated problems with drugs and drug laws which he escaped. And not by accident: Nanny gently makes it clear that their respective economic positions were directly connected.
Made in a similar style to the BBC’s Adam Curtis, if not quite as freeform, the film combines found archive footage, music and fascinating historical nuggets (like the origins of anti-drug laws, rooted in anti-Chinese sentiments). For anyone with a passing interest in the subject, it’s strangely gripping, told in a clear narrative which leads to an inescapable conclusion. But I suppose one question might be whether this means anything for us, other than a prurient interest and the chance to see how much The Wire was based on reality? Well, given our tendency to follow American public policy whenever possible, this suggests that in this case, that would be a crazy mistake.
From deadly realism to just about the furthest thing possible: the frothy, frivolous world of PG Wodehouse in a new, starry adaptation of his Blandings books (less familiar than the Jeeves and Wooster ones, but just as popular with aficionados). Now, like all Wodehouse adaptations, this suffers from the inevitable fact that it can never be as funny as the original, where the humour is not particularly in the ludicrous situations – here devoted pig owner Lord Emsworth strives to help the Empress win the Fattest Pig Contest despite the untimely imprisonment of her keeper. It’s the way they’re told: sheer effervescent clever wordplay, bubbling along at the perfect pace, with eccentric metaphors and slang words which jump off the page to charm away any reservations (that unfortunate Nazi collaboration business, or the fact they all basically tell the same story over and over).
Scriptwriters do try, forcing the best lines in there somehow, but even actors with the skill of Timothy Spall and Robert Bathurst can’t make them sound as funny as they read. Spall looks exactly right as the lugubrious, befuddled Emsworth though, with Jennifer Saunders as his bossy sister (straying slightly too far into spoofing it up) and newcomer Jack Farthing as his cheerfully idiotic son. Frothy nonsense is hard to bring off and though I rarely laughed, it is an amiable and harmless distraction from a cold, broke January.
My Mad Fat Teenage Diary is, conveniently enough, both realistic and frothy. Based on the teenage diaries of writer Rae Earl – who, unlike most of us, had something genuinely dramatic to agonise over, having been taken into a psychiatric hospital – it portrays its 1990s heroine (young Scots actress Sharon Rooney) in all her gawky, unglamorous, stroppy non-glory. But this is far from a grim expose of mental health, because Rae is far less interested in that than in boys – or BOYS!!! as her diary would have it.
It’s an odd tonal mixture, lurching from touching moments to overegged stereotypes, with plenty that both young and older viewers will groan to recognise. It’s all played a bit safe though: I wish they’d let out more of the madness.