It sounds like a satirical joke from a futuristic movie (there’s actually a similar scene in upcoming teen flick The Hunger Games), but it’s real. And even after watching This World’s interesting documentary about the show, it’s hard to decide if it’s an incredibly exploitative piece of state propaganda or a moving exploration of human weakness which might lead to reform – or probably both.
China executes more people than any other country, with 55 crimes eligible for the death penalty. Interviews Before Execution, which has been running for four years on the State-owned Henan province Legal Channel, only bothers with the straightforward murder cases. It’s presented by Ding Yu: pretty, petite, glamorous. Her producer calls her “the beauty with the beasts” but she’s no telly bimbo – the show was her idea.
The documentary shows us a couple of her 200 interviews and they’re extraordinary. A man who stabbed his ex-wife to death says: “I really didn’t want to hurt her ... but I killed her in the end.” Asked to record a message to his young daughter, he says: “Daddy’s sorry.” Ding Yu later tracks down the daughter and shows her the tape. Another young man who murdered his girlfriend’s grandparents in a robbery says: “I’m in great agony. Be strong and don’t fall in love with someone like me in the future.” This, rather obviously, is a far cry from telling Jonathan Ross about your latest film.
Occasionally the programme has an impact: a battered wife who killed her husband is eventually spared the firing squad after her parents manage to buy off his parents, in an official mediation process. An interview with a gay killer caused a storm and Ding still wonders whether she should have agreed to his last request, to shake her hand. But mostly they just die, with the programme proclaiming itself a witness. As the documentary goes on, we see the toll this takes on its presenter, who despite loyally following the official line is clearly affected by it all. She dreams of all her interviewees in a line, standing looking at her. “I have too much rubbish in my heart,” she says (I wonder if Jeremy Kyle ever thinks the same?).
The programme’s intro declares its aim is to “awaken human nature and perceive the value of life” and there is more than one way in which it does so. Things are changing in China and maybe this programme has a role to play. Although the documentary is longer than it needs to be, this is such an insightful glimpse into the country.
Unlike Niall Ferguson’s polemical China: Triumph And Turmoil, which veers between inflammatory language – “we’re having to kowtow to new Asian masters … should we be scared?” – and meandering history (the first Emperor, Confucius and so on) to present his views on the country today. But throughout, Ferguson slyly insists on presenting the Chinese as weird “others”: “The way the Chinese think is as different from the way we think as the way they write and I always feel like an alien from another planet when I come here,” he says. This kind of 19th century Orientalism is ugly to watch, but Ferguson also has barbs for those in the West who “hail every little Tweet of dissent” as signs that the regime could be in trouble, which according to him would be a bad thing – in effect, he says, it’s “too big to fail”. Where have we heard that before?
Channel 4’s series Educating Essex made headlines last year – mostly of the “What sort of example is this to set our children?” variety – for its portrayal of life in an English secondary school with many difficult pupils. But as we know, the school system is very different here and so the BBC Scotland series High School is a more relevant fly-on-the-wall account of a year at Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow’s Southside.
This is an unashamedly positive picture in which Europe’s biggest secondary seems like a tightly-knit, supportive community. Perhaps it had to be, to get the school’s co-operation, or perhaps it genuinely is that good. The teachers seem dedicated and human; the kids featured are funny and nice and massively articulate; one actually bemoans the fact that there is no school at weekends. The two big storylines are the election for head girl and boy and the appointment of a new deputy head: both end well with no problems. A couple of new kids have issues to overcome but get all the support they need. Dramatic, it’s not – which is obviously good news if your child goes there.
Though it’s a Catholic school, so far that isn’t emphasised much. That’s an aspect of the Scottish system which is quite different to the English one and which is often misunderstood. Perhaps the very unremarkable nature of the series says something about that too.
Frankly, even if this is a sanitised portrait of education, given how much we hear about the dire state of The Youth of Today it’s refreshing to see that most of them are lovely and most teachers are trying their best.
This World: interviews Before Execution – a chinese talk show
Monday, BBC2, 11:20pm
China: Triumph And Turmoil
Monday, Channel 4, 8pm
Monday, BBC1 Scotland, 9pm
Music And Lyrics ***
Tuesday, ITV2, midnight
Daffy romcom with as much substance as low-calorie yoghurt, as washed-up pop star Hugh Grant and poetic temp Drew Barrymore team up to write a hit record. Worth watching purely for the genuinely hilarious flashbacks to Grant’s past Wham!-style 1980s videos – if only there were more of them.