Daytime TV: One kind of folks

Prejudice still prevails in Harper Lee's home town, finds Gary Day, who also ponders bovine romanticism

July 15, 2010

Andrew Smith's favourite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It is about a lawyer defending a black man on a charge of rape in the 1930s, and the story is told through the eyes of his young daughter, Scout. Andrew has read it more times than any other book. "It refuses to sanction stereotypes or deal in easy judgements." Which, come to think of it, is not a bad description of literature.

Andrew went to Lee's birthplace, Monroeville, Alabama, to witness the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the book's publication and to find out more about the author (To Kill a Mockingbird at 50, BBC Four, Tuesday 6 July, 9pm).

At the end of an hour, we had not learned very much more than we knew already - that Lee is a recluse and that she never wrote another novel. "I said what I had to say. Why say more?" she remarked tersely, circa 1965. Nor were we any the wiser about why To Kill a Mockingbird means so much to Andrew, proving that there doesn't always have to be an end-product for something to be enjoyable.

With his modish black trilby, Andrew looked as if he should be in a nightclub playing saxophone instead of criticising the festivities. "Look at that. Mockingbird ice cream." It was raining. The guests could have taken shelter under a prodigious pink hat worn by a woman, but they didn't want to disturb her as she was canoodling with her poodle. Andrew wandered round, asking people if they had read the novel. One woman in her late eighties said she hadn't got round to it yet. The rest looked at him as if he'd just enquired whether they enjoyed torturing kittens.

Andrew really wanted to meet Harper Lee, or Nelle as she is known to the locals. But she didn't want to meet him. This led Andrew to display some rather disturbing symptoms. "I can't help but feel that Nelle is watching over me," he said. "She seems to know my every move." He did, though, meet Alice, her sister, who, at 98, is still practising law. She spoke with a screech that must terrify opposing counsel. "You knew black people," she said, referring to the 1930s, "but not socially."

Andrew took off his hat. He even threw a party. Still Lee did not appear. He was beginning to run out of people to talk to. In desperation he interviewed Ray Larsen, the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Ray, who had one dark lens and one clear lens in his glasses, had not read the best novel in the entire universe. Why was that? He didn't care for it. Andrew's eyes glinted dangerously. He only just managed to stop himself from strangling Ray as he helped him to fasten the clasp on his cloak.

Which just goes to show that it is very hard to follow even your favourite author's most famous advice: that you never know someone until you stand in their shoes and walk around in them. The film demonstrated that there was still enough hostility and hatred in present-day America to make To Kill a Mockingbird "news that stays news", which was Ezra Pound's definition of literature.

Jimmy Doherty wanted to find out about the private life of cows (The Private Life of Cows, BBC Two, Wednesday 7 July, 8pm). So he filmed them, thereby showing that cows, like the contestants in Big Brother, don't have private lives at all. The only difference is that they don't volunteer to be on camera 24 hours a day. Oh, and they are also more watchable than the fame-hungry housemates baring their souls in the Diary Room.

As an exercise in anthropomorphism, the programme stank more than the average cowshed. The unfortunately named Jilly Greed described her herd as "extremely intelligent" and "socially aware". Her bull Early was "very romantic". No doubt he wrote poetry and always called afterwards. And Jimmy was very excited to discover that one of the cows, Violet, was an "extremely good networker". She has probably already been signed up by a firm of London consultants.

This kind of talk - "I never imagined she was such an It girl" - made the business side of the farm all the more chilling. The animals were "bred for slaughter". Those that were barren had "no commercial value". One cow, Lichen, was smart enough to have spotted the contradiction and charged Jilly at every opportunity.

Both she and Jimmy would do well to ponder Milan Kundera's words. "Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it."

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