Daytime TV: Fighting talk

Gary Day watches Michael Portillo learn about violence, but is baffled by his lack of self-knowledge

May 21, 2009

Michael Portillo said that he has never had a fight in his life (Horizon, BBC Two, Tuesday 12 May 9pm). This is not strictly true, as you might expect coming from a former politician. For a start, he fought and lost the Labour seat of Birmingham Perry Barr in 1983. Looking the camera if not the audience in the eye, he told us that he did not have a single aggressive bone in his body. Which showed, if nothing else, a poor knowledge of human biology.

Now that he is no longer a Member of Parliament, for which he must be extremely grateful at the moment, Michael is keen to learn about life. "What is it", he wonders, "that makes ordinary people commit acts of extreme violence?" Posing as an ordinary person, Michael aimed to find out. Unfortunately, his impersonation of a normal human being was seen through instantly by the inhabitants of Potosi in Bolivia because he'd forgotten to don a feathered headdress.

Michael was there to witness the Tinku, a form of ritualised conflict a bit like that between new Labour and the Conservatives except that it achieves something. Every year the villagers gather to sort out family feuds and disputes with neighbours by a good punch-up. Splitting your opponent's lip also has the added benefit of helping to fertilise the land. "The more blood that is shed," explained the local doctor, "the better the harvest. Especially if someone dies." There were rules. You could only fight someone your age and height.

Michael wondered if he might have a go, just to see how he would react. He was fitted with gloves, padding and a protective helmet; an Achilles being prepared for battle. His opponent was half his size and twice his age. It wasn't much of a contest. After two minutes Michael was sweating and out of breath. He is, of course, no longer Secretary of State for Defence, which is a comfort.

Back in Blighty, Michael was introduced to the idea that lack of sleep might make a person short-tempered. He was provided with two dolls programmed to cry, scream, grizzle, fill their nappies and refuse all comfort. Michael did his best. The dolls were still intact after 60 hours, though he himself was rather frayed. He doesn't have children. After this experience that situation is unlikely to change.

Michael had apparently never heard of the Milgram experiment and was shocked to discover that Mr and Ms Average will generally administer a lethal electrical shock to another human being if told to do so by an authority figure. By the end of the programme, Michael had learnt what most people knew at the beginning - that we all have a capacity for violence and even murder.

What was most disturbing was not the image of men fighting in a cage or a young man explaining the pleasure he got in mutilating an enemy, but Michael's apparent naivety. Did he really not know that ideas can inspire genocide? And if he did, why pretend he didn't? Not to identify with the viewer, surely? That assumes we are a pretty ignorant lot. He's either clueless or he's not telling the truth. Neither of which I can bring myself to believe about a former or indeed a current politician.

There's no agonising about violence in Ashes to Ashes (BBC One, Monday 11 May 9pm). "A quick word about police brutality," barks DCI Gene Hunt before leading his officers on a raid. "I want plenty of it." Was he at the G20, you wonder. The series is packed with terrific exchanges like this one: "Why did you have sex with him?" "The central heating was off."

The programme, like its predecessor Life on Mars, introduces a novel form of time travel called getting shot. Instead of being injured or dying, you are transported back to the past, in this case 1981, where you remain for 16 episodes. That's what's happened to Alex Drake. But at least she finds herself doing the same job. It's hard enough sorting out a new wardrobe without having to start a different career as well.

Alex works closely with her colleague DCI Hunt to root out corruption in the force. This involves spending a lot of time in Luigi's restaurant. A pleasant meal, a bottle of wine and good company is enough for most men, but not DCI Hunt, who regards no visit to Luigi's as complete unless he has blacked the eyes of several of his fellow officers.

The programme reflects our contemporary anxieties about masculinity. There were several dismissive references to Brideshead Revisited. Real men don't have teddy bears. They fight. Their prowess with their fists is a sign of their integrity, as is their dishevelled appearance. If Michael wants to know about violence, he should watch shows like this.

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