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A good tour spoiled

"It's Top Gear meets Dispatches," is how I imagine the producers of India On Four Wheels pitched their new documentary series parallelling the rise of Indian motor industry with the rise of Indian capitalism.

Of course, they couldn't send racially insensitive ironic imperialist Jeremy Clarkson to the Indian sub-continent. That would be a recipe for disaster (possibly even an act of war).

So they sent Anita Rani and Justin Rowlatt, two safer, younger, chirpier presenters who drove along two treacherous routes from Delhi to Chennai in two very different cars: a Mahindra bolero (the 4x4 choice of India's emerging middle class)and a Hindustan Ambassador (a sub-continental jalopy driven by the hoi polloi).

While driving these two cars is a neat way to contrast two Indias -- the confident emerging capitalist India and the more traditional poverty stricken nation that's being left behind -- the programme is unfortunately haunted by all the expectations that come with it's Top Gear-style set-up.


Anita and Justin don't do anything to assuage this expectation, sporadically slipping into ineffectual banter and trash-talk (so bad I won't recount it. Here's some trash talk I've made up instead: "You are a big car-driving silly face." "No! You are a small car-driving poo head!").

These concessions to Top Gear-ism have the effect of undermining the very real story about Indian economic growth and inequality at the core of the programme.

So a bit in which Justin accidentally finds himself partying at the traditional wedding of some creepy gun-toting nouveau riche luminaries is marred by a fear Richard Hammond might turn up demanding egg and chips.

A section where Anita visits a free clinic to meet some Indians suffering with pollution-related respiratory illnesses is tainted by a worry Clarkson might jump out and make them race for his pleasure.

Furthermore, the car theme often gets shoehorned in, dominating scenes it shouldn't dominate.

For example, a heartbreaking piece about scavenging street children is followed by a visit to a cosseted Maharaja who says: "(The class divide) was always there and will always remain there. There is nothing you can do about it. It's a human tendency.

A human weakness. It is the story of mankind." But Anita also has to have a go in the Maharaja's fancy old car, and suddenly I'm unsure whether they're asking me to hate him as a complacent high-caste oppressor or love him as a quirky vintage motoring enthusiast.

In spite of the silly framing mechanism, the first episode of India On Four Wheels still tells a powerful story about the thrusting Indian economy and those it grinds underfoot (or wheel).


But it also made me nostalgic for a time when TV producers embraced weighty subjects without silly gimmicks.

Once this programme would have simply been called India In The Modern Age and the BBC's controller general would have gone around to your house in person to point and laugh at you if you complained that it was heavy going (On the other hand, 50 years before that again, the documentary would have been called India. It's Ours. Back Off. So not everything in the past is better).

This week Channel 4's First Cuts series came closer to home with The Perfect Murder, a documentary about David Stewart, the faithful husband of convicted murderer Hazel Buchanan. In 1991, with her lover Colin Howell, she killed her husband and Howell's wife in Castlerock, County Derry.

Their deaths were considered a double suicide until Howell confessed years later and now Buchanan is serving a minimum of 19 years in prison.

Refreshingly, director Judy Kelly ignores the more salacious aspects of the case and views it almost exclusively through David Stewart's eyes.

The end result is a surprisingly affecting story of one man's tragedy.

India on Four Wheels HHHII

The Perfect Murder HHHHI