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It’s a year now since I got back from my little trip to England, where I visited rellies, was fed raw leek by a gorilla and slipped and slithered over frozen garbage in London.

And it’s nearly 20 years since I was there before that, horrified in the middle of the miners’ strike, in Thatcher’s heyday. I returned here gladly in 1985 wondering what on earth was going to happen to my birthplace in the north of England, which was so clearly under attack. Now we know. London now rates 45th on a list of liveable cities that includes virtually all Australian capitals in the top ten.

Two ABC programs got me thinking about all this: of course the two-part Thatcher biography in February, and the recently started Crime Team (Thursdays, 9.30pm). Funny how some programs are better for company: I needed it in the Thatcher documentaries, because they made hard watching for anyone who remembers free education, a fair working week, real weekends and a health system that worked.
‘Yes,’ said my husband. ‘I remember that time too. Before privatisation, outsourcing, anti-union legislation and gambling-led recoveries.’

‘A time when redistribution of wealth was still a respectable topic, and taxing the incomes of the rich rather than the food of the poor was the way to get money for government,’ I replied.

‘A time when we were governed instead of ruled,’ said my son, who was too young to remember, but could do the maths.

If economic rationalism has hit Australia hard, with the widening gap between rich and poor, the damage I’ve seen in my birth country has been far worse. That garbage in the streets, my relatives’ harrowing stories of dreadful negligence under the NHS, the general air of truculent mistrust, where had it all come from? Whodunnit?

Well, using the tools available to me at the time, as in the excellent, even compulsively viewable Crime Team, I can say that I have no doubt at all that Maggie Thatcher, Milton Friedman’s centrefold, dunnit. Blair, (whatever one thinks of him now) was hobbled from the start, trying to build a decent home out of the wreck she left behind her. Anyway, the documentary, careful and even-handed to the point of whitewash, was damning enough. She said enough to make you realise that it is always a mistake to vote for a successful psychopath. The sight of her weeping because she was no longer in power was curiously unaffecting: usually the sight of an elderly lady weeping will make a stone feel something.

Unless of course the elderly lady is weeping because she isn’t able to bully an entire country any more.

The big thing that England still labours under, no pun intended, and I speak as an anguished Pom, is that horrible, poisonous class system. You see it in Maggie, with her careful vowels tortured into a simulacrum of gentility, especially at the beginning when she had to slow her speech (your mother tongue always surfaces when you speak quickly). Eventually, from long use, she seemed at ease with her artificial voice, a forced-down contralto that rasped when she was angry, which was often.

In Crime Team, which you simply must watch, the accents tell their own story too. Britain is still class-ridden, with celebrity sleuths paired to make as much contrast as possible. The natural Essex warmth of crime novelist Martina Cole contrasted with the waspish fluting of art critic Brian Sewell, whose accent would not be snobbish if his words were not egregiously so. He attempts to patronise her and ends up chucking little tanties when she dares to disagree with him. Anne Widdecombe, ex minister for the Tories, was teamed in the first episode with lefty comic John O’Farrell. They did rather better together; it tends to work when both parties have good manners. But top of the rudeness league was Janet Street-Porter, the British journalist, who turns the team effort into investigating a 17th century murder into a childish me-first race.

The series’ host, Jerome Lynch, is a real barrister who isn’t shy of hectoring the teams for sloppy thinking. He reminds one team that a junior barrister would be sacked for neglecting to ask some glaring questions, and you don’t doubt it. What raises this program above many others is its focus on the social conditions of the times it investigates. This is particularly harrowing when, in an upcoming episode dealing with the mysterious deaths of babies found floating in a river, Lynch tells us that in the 1890s, (when my grandparents were alive) 50 children a year were found dead in London streets. To a child brought up under Keynesian systems, that would be unthinkable. But what will the future bring?

On a lighter note or notes, SBS has a series called Songs That Changed The World, screening Wednesdays at 7.30pm. March 3’s pick is ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, which is probably the sexiest song ever performed. How it changed the world is anyone’s guess. If songs can change the world for the better, let me suggest something like ‘Try A Little Tenderness’. It wouldn’t hurt.  

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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