TV UK, 23 June
The Girl in the Café: weak drama, worse politics.
The Girl in the Café (BBC1, Saturday at 9.15pm) is romcom as agitprop, a new one on me. Screenwriter Richard Curtis is famous for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and that sort of thing, but he has also been involved for a long time in the charity Comic Relief. The Girl in the Café is a romantic comedy about the coming G8 summit, displaced for dramatic reasons to Reykjavik, and agitating for the Make Poverty History campaign.
The basic idea is that Bill Nighy’s ageing and dispirited Treasury civil servant meets Kelly McDonald’s enigmatic ingénue in an overcrowded café, and the two make a connection that leads after a couple of not-quite dates to him asking her to come with him to the G8 summit. ‘What’s that?’ she asks, somewhat improbably. But once this pure-hearted young thing has been filled in on the Millennium Goals to reduce extreme poverty, there is no stopping her from piping up at awkward moments to put the summiteers under pressure. She becomes the conscience of the G8.
The character’s political naivety is important. While we get a fleeting glimpse of the G8 protesters, and the girl is accused of being some sort of plant, there is no political agenda beyond the G8’s own. The girl learns everything she knows from her host’s briefing papers, only dissenting to suggest there should be pictures of the starving babies as well as dry statistics. There is not a hint of ‘anticapitalism’, even of the inoffensive variety that pervades alternative comedy. Instead, Curtis follows the Bob’n’Bongo strategy of flattering politicians into living up to their ‘historic’ promises.
Dramatically, this is faintly disastrous. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Curtis dispenses with the customary cynicism about politicians, emphasising instead their potential to make a difference in the world. But even leaving aside the limited ambition of the Make Poverty History campaign – discussed elsewhere on spiked (1) – the idea of a bunch of genuinely decent people being coaxed to do what they know they should has limited dramatic potential.
Ken Stott does a good turn as the surly Scottish chancellor, even getting in a gag about how the prime minister plans to live forever. He wants to achieve the Millennium Goals, but as a man of the world, he knows it might not be possible. Bill Nighy’s character has special responsibility for the goals, but he has no fire in his belly to make him fight for them. Only the feisty girl in the café can wake these powerful men from their slumber. ‘A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing’, the chancellor tells her when she quotes some statistics at him over coffee. ‘A lot of knowledge can be a dangerous thing too’, she tells him. I forget the rest, but it has something to do with perspective and stuff, and her dad, which makes it sort of folksy.
The drama does succeed in making the audience complicit in the sense of embarrassment generated in these scenes, largely thanks to Bill Nighy’s proficient performance as the cringing civil servant. We too want the girl to shut up, stop making a scene, leave us alone. And I suppose that’s meant to make us feel guilty and realise there are more important things than our own comfort. But ultimately the film’s message is a comforting one: it conjures a world without political conflict, in which all that really matters is that politicians are decent chaps and do the right thing. The rest of us only have to hold them to it. Weak drama, worse politics.
(1) See Should we make ‘Make Poverty History’ history?, by Brendan O’Neill
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