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TV UK, 19 May

Operation Muslim Vote: two blokes from Ilford take on the foreign secretary.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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In this week’s Compulsion (BBC2, Wednesdays at 9pm), Jan, a middle-aged compulsive gambler, faced prosecution for stealing from Queenie, an old woman under her care. Jan insisted that she had borrowed the money intending to pay it back, and that Queenie had willingly lent it to her. ‘She knew the truth’, Jan maintained towards the end of the programme. ‘What was the truth?’ asked filmmaker Tanya Stephan. A big question.

Jan said she would refuse against her lawyer’s advice to plead guilty to stealing. ‘I did do it in reality’, she admitted, ‘but in my heart I was going to pay it back’. An interesting distinction. Stephan pointed out that it looked bad nonetheless, especially since Queenie had been ill and possibly in no condition to consent to a loan. ‘It does to the audience’, Jan acknowledged, ‘but they don’t see how I felt at the time’. Indeed, despite the pretensions of reality TV, no documentary can show us how anyone feels. Documentaries can only illustrate their makers’ own ideas about such things.

Jan bemoaned the fact that even her mother didn’t understand her, so it was always going to be a stretch for a jury. One newspaper previewer complained that we never saw Jan actually gambling, but that is unlikely to have shed any light on the complicated phenomenon of compulsion; one person playing slot machines looks much like any other. Stephan argued that it was Jan’s addiction that made it impossible for her to reconcile her well-meaning self with the compulsive gambler who repeatedly broke her promises, causing her to clock up a £37,000 credit card debt. But one might just as well say that it was Jan’s inability to face reality that constituted her addiction.

In contrast to drug addicts, gamblers don’t have a substance to blame for their behaviour, but even in the case of drugs, chemicals are never the whole explanation. For all its limitations then, this is a valuable series, forcing viewers to rethink popular assumptions about normal as well as compulsive behaviour by highlighting the psychological evasions of its subjects, and demonstrating the difficulty of making sense of these things in conventional terms.

Operation Muslim Vote (Channel 4 on Monday) was another eye-opening documentary. At the end we were shown footage of Jack Straw’s acceptance speech following his holding Blackburn in the recent General Election. He commended his supporters for winning despite the efforts of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), allegedly a sinister and well-funded organisation that had drafted in an army of militants from London and elsewhere to stir up religious tension and intimidate Labour supporters. By this stage in the programme however, we already knew that MPAC was two blokes from Ilford, who had proved no match for the local Labour party machine, which seems stronger in the mosques than anywhere else.

Asghar and Mudasser gave up their jobs as IT guys to mobilise Muslim votes against the government in protest against the Iraq war. As foreign secretary, and occupying a constituency with a substantial Muslim population, Jack Straw was their prime target. Their rhetoric was overblown and it was hard to take them seriously, but the programme portrayed them as likeable enough. Far from being fanatics, Asghar and Mudasser demonstrated a boyscoutlike belief in the importance of voting (and a misanthropic disdain for the political apathy of their co-religionists).

More than that, they showed an instinctive understanding of how contemporary television works, emoting for the camera at all the right moments. In one scene, they were filmed moving into the house they had rented as campaign headquarters (a familiar trope, for some reason, in documentaries like this). Carrying a bed up the stairs, Asghar, who had the bottom end, winked at the camera and whispered, ‘He’s doing all the work!’. Not so much Osama bin Laden as Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen. Behind every supposedly sinister organisation, I suspect, there’s a well-meaning bloke struggling with a mattress.

It was perhaps too charitable of the film-maker to present an MPAC leaflet’s (inaccurate) assertion that another Labour candidate was Jewish as an innocent bungle, but by then we had seen enough to realise that such idiocy indicates a lack of ideological coherence rather than well-organised fanaticism. As it happens the Labour candidate in question, Lorna Fitzsimons, did lose her seat, but the boys from Ilford are kidding themselves if they imagine that was down to them.

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