TV UK, 20 June

Dolan CummingsEvery four years, the World Cup turns those who do not watch football into pint-clutching supporters.

Dolan Cummings

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I’m slightly disturbed by the title of Capitalism With Melvyn Bragg. Apart from the fact that it sounds vaguely like a game show, is Bragg really such a star that people are more likely to watch a programme with his name on it?

Perhaps they are, but I have to confess that when I hear his world-weary tones on Radio Four on those odd mornings when I’m not already in the gym, I’m inclined to reach for the snooze button.

Capitalism WMB (BBC4, Fridays at 9pm) is essentially a TV version of one of Bragg’s radio discussion programmes, perhaps aimed at a younger demographic, and fulfilling BBC4’s remit to provide ‘a place to think’. To be fair, this is a perfectly interesting topic, and the first episode on the origins of capitalism is perfectly watchable. But while know-nothing contemporary anti-capitalists might be shocked to learn how much Marx admired capitalism, there are no great insights for anybody who knows the history and is vaguely familiar with the early literature on capitalism. (Well, what were you doing when you were 17?)

A bigger problem is that Bragg’s guests are academics, and not terribly entertaining ones at that. It’s hard to get excited about the occasional disagreement over what emphasis to put on the role of religion, but perhaps things will heat up in the next couple of episodes, which ask where Marx went wrong (grr), and where we go from here.

The groovy version of Capitalism WMB is The Mark Steel Lecture, also adapted from radio (BBC4, Thursday at 10pm). Comedian Mark Steel believes that Marx’s theories ‘are perhaps more relevant today than ever before’, and has come up with a series of examples to demonstrate this. Oh, dear. Is this some elaborate plot to turn another generation away from Marx? Like his notoriously unfunny fellow traveller Mark Thomas, Steel comes over like a ‘cool’ schoolteacher. But the whole fun strategy is undermined by the comedian’s apparent belief that railway safety is the hot issue to grip the youth of today. Give me a boring old academic going on about religion any day.

If TV struggles with world historical topics, it is increasingly good at dealing with more personal issues. In My Head (Channel 4, Sundays at 8.05pm) is a series examining the experience of mental illness. The first episode was about a 16-year-old suffering from schizophrenia, which got worse through the course of the programme. Michael said that he wanted to take part because ‘ignorance breeds prejudice’, and in fact he did a reasonably good job of demystifying his condition.

For example, his ‘voices’. He doesn’t hear exotic or demonic characters telling him to kill his family. Instead, in one attack he hears his own voice arguing with itself, not saying anything in particular, but just trying to sound logical. This is just a kid struggling with exam revision, but with the added burden of schizophrenia. Michael’s mother was upset by the lack of support the family was getting from the NHS, and by the end of the programme he was institutionalised, but the programme’s focus was on recording Michael’s illness rather than investigating the system.

The tragedy was a little lightened by the fact that Michael had a pet parrot – a schizophrenic who keeps a parrot certainly can’t be accused of lacking a sense of humour. Next week though, we are introduced to a couple of suicidal teenage girls in a psychiatric adolescent unit, where the gags may be thinner on the ground.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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