Friday 2 December 2016

From Tolstoy to titillation, the problem is all relative

TELEVISION Unhappy families come to the fore, with demons cast out into spotlight, writes Carol Hunt

Published 10/04/2011 | 05:00

Imagine: The Trouble with Tolstoy (BBC1)

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My Brother the Islamist (BBC3)

Lolo Ferrari: Larger than Life (TV3)

IT HAS been called the "Anna Karenina principle", as it comes from the opening line of Tolstoy's book. The idea is that: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I've never bought into that. On the contrary, happy, successful families always seem to do things rather differently -- they innovate and reason their way through difficulties, and most importantly, they communicate -- while the "unhappy families" just plod on, failing to connect, blinded by habit; making the same age-old mistakes day after day after day.

Take the aforementioned Tolstoy. Last Sunday, we saw the culmination of the two-part documentary, narrated by Alan Yentob, of this famously tortured man. It was the better half by far, as it included an exciting amount of archive film and documentary evidence, and it also covered the autographical aspects (and there were many) of what is arguably his most successful book, Anna Karenina.

The commentators, though tough on his self-righteousness and "narcissism", are, in the main, sympathetic to Tolstoy's demons: his frustration with the suffocating state and his exasperation at the tug of war between his long-suffering wife and his great platonic love, the manipulative Vladimir Chertkov.

Ultimately, of course, the script has already been written. And we come to what is called Tolstoy's "King Lear moment". It even ends at a railway station, with original footage of poor wife Sofia (whom we realise is a composite of Dolly and Kitty from the diaries read to us by Deborah Findlay) desperately trying to be admitted to the railway officer's house in remote Astapova, where her husband lies dying -- by his own hand?

Tolstoy manages to escape his "unhappy family". He is depicted here as a man, though plagued by demons, who produced work which resonated with millions. But his failure, his great tragedy, was that he could not, as one commentator noted, love anyone.

MORE family problems hit our screens this week as a perturbed Robb Leech decided to make a documentary to try to find out why his step-brother Richard suddenly turned into an Islamic extremist. Not perhaps the method most of us would use to sort out family problems, but hey, if Tolstoy could write a best-selling novel detailing his woes, perhaps Leech could make the grade with a film?

So, off we go with a confused, but open-minded Leech, to try to discover why a young man who a year ago would have been "down the pub with us" watching the soccer, is now devoting his life to Allah and jihad.

"Salahuddin", as Richard now calls himself, spends most of his time handing out leaflets and preaching on the streets. On a rather more sinister occasion, he, with some of his radical comrades, protest at the return of British soldiers from Afghanistan. They are opposed by National Front supporters. As Leech watches, he comments: "I can't decide which group is worse." It's obvious that Leech now finds it difficult to communicate with this new manifestation of his step-brother. He's horrified when Richard will only use his left -- dirty -- hand to shake his with.

Yet when Leech spends time breaking Ramadan with Richard and his fellow Islamists, he can't help liking them; they seem normal, generous, young men -- albeit with revolutionary ideas -- particularly a young acolyte named Ben, an interesting, funny, boy who horrifies his mother by saying that he is willing to die for the Islamic cause.

How to square the circle? Leech can't understand Richard's lack of empathy -- or love -- for his brother. All we can conclude is that an unhappy Richard had his own demons to contend with.

Who can understand what demons drove Lolo Ferrari -- real name Eve Valois -- to undergo a series of operations which would see her breasts reach a monstrous 54G?

We all remember Lolo, the girl who seemed to hate herself and her body in equal measure but was happy to serve both up for the titillation of her "fans". At 17, she was a smart, middle-class student -- albeit from yet another "unhappy family".

By 2000, she was a grotesque corpse, dead "apparently" of an overdose.

Lolo Ferrari: Larger than Life set itself up as a sensitive documentary, which aimed to uncover the personality of naive, unhappy Eve, who, following a fraught family life, disastrously marries the man who would sell her into prostitution (he was charged with the crime), Eric Vigne. In reality, it seemed like yet another cheap excuse to righteously yell ooh-la-la at the freak that Eve became -- while simultaneously exploiting her memory.

To the end, she and her dubiously "loving" husband Vigne insisted that they had a happy family life. I don't think it was quite what Tolstoy had in mind.

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