A Serious Business

New Statesman (1996), May 21, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Serious Business


ANDREW BILLEN on a smart renunciation of global capitalism

In earlier, more innocent times, a sure-fire target for the TV critic was the presenter's clothes. In the Observer, Clive James once recorded that he could tell that Nationwide was in "bank holiday mood" because Michael Barrett was wearing his shirt over, rather than inside, his trousers. Most weeks, all James had to do was document the number of different outfits worn by James Burke or Melvyn Bragg during an hour's television and he had said all that was possible about the programme's values, budgets and egos. Then along came the continuity girl (and it always was a young woman) who ensured that, whatever world city their charges popped up in, they would be wearing, down to the very knot in their ties, exactly what they had been seen wearing seconds before in a quite different city. (In Sister Wendy Beckett's case, this was a rather easy job to keep down.) We critics had to look for other jokes, and these days you have to dress as badly as Angus Deayton -- who did not disappoint when hosting the Baftas -- f or your wardrobe to attract any comment at all.

The exception is if you are a young woman making a documentary with Juniper Productions, which either has a conscientious objection to continuity or actively encouraged the economist Noreena Hertz to don three differently distracting hats in 50 minutes of television, to dress in a Barbie doll's range of clothes, from duffel coats to evening gowns, and to wear her hair in as many permutations as My Little Pony. The dress changes, they would probably argue, were required to enable Hertz both to walk with kings and not to lose the common touch among the May Day protesters (the producers of Charlie's Angels no doubt made the same excuse), but visually, the unfortunate conclusion to The End of Politics (Sunday 13 May, Channel 4) was that Hertz had bought enough from the retail outlets of global capitalism in practice to make her renunciation of global capitalism in theory appear redundant.

But shut your eyes and there was no doubting the robustness of Hertz's analysis that money, not politics, now rules the world. Some of her best interviews showed politicians such as Leon Brittan, Tony Blair and Roy Hattersley struggling for air as they expressed their explicit or implicit exasperation at decisions that have been taken out of their hands by big business. I found Hertz's strictures against globalisation -- particularly the "race to the bottom" being conducted, prostrate, by developing countries desperate to attract multinationals - more frightening than her citing of public/private finance initiatives in Britain. She filmed, for instance, the protests of parents and children who were furious that a school in Islington was being closed by the private firm that now runs education on the borough's behalf. …

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