Better be a cynic than starry-eyed;Reviews;TV

10th April 1998 at 01:00
HISTORY IN ACTION. Heroes or Villains. Channel 4. Series available on two videos (pound;17.99 each) from C4. Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZAge range: 14-19.

Every hero is somebody else's villain, and each of the eight leaders who form the subject of this series has aroused mixed feelings.

This means that there is plenty of material for discussion here, not only about the causes to which Yasser Arafat, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and the rest devoted their lives, but also about the choices they made once these causes had triumphed. If there is one, underlying lesson from these eight careers, it is that heroes almost inevitably become villains in the exercise of power.

Each programme has a clear narrative commentary, spoken by Zeinab Badawi, illustrated with excellent archive footage and developed from time to time with comment from experts or witnesses. Unlike Brian Walden's recent series for the BBC, Walden on Heroes, this does not aim to reach a verdict on the central character. In fact, it is remarkably non-judgmental: only in the case of Mao Zedong does it venture the uncontroversial opinion that, though he remains a hero in China today, "history may be a harsher critic."

Otherwise it is content to point out, for example, that Mikhail Gorbachev, still a hero for the West, is not so popular in Russia and some people feel ill-disposed towards Arafat and Castro.

The matter of heroic status may seem a trivial one, yet it raises interesting questions about the making of history. We create heroes to satisfy a need, but we may wonder on the basis of these biographies whether premature cynicism may notbe better than belated disenchantment.

Most of the eight leaders here belong to the Third World and were involved in the anti-imperialist wars that were a central feature of world politics in the third quarter of this century. Gandhi, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Arafat, Mandela and Martin Luther King seemed to an earlier generation, in their own countries and in the West, to be part of a single struggle for a better and juster world. Now, as the century draws to a close, their achievements are likely to seem very different, both in themselves and in comparison with one another.

Inevitably, programmes that are only 20 minutes long can only give short biographies. This is not so much of a drawback in the case of Martin Luther King, where the life was cut drastically short, or in that of Mandela, where a long period was spent in prison away from the field of conflict. But the complex histories of modern China and Indochina have been greatly simplified: there is no mention of the Japanese occupation of either country for example.

Sometimes, though, a small detail will bring a personality to life. It is interesting to see Arafat through the eyes of his brother, who recalls him playing the "liberation of Palestine" game as a small boy in Egypt; and it is useful to be reminded (by a former diplomat) of Fidel Castro's physical presence, his sheer bulk, imposing beard and fearsome temper. On the other hand we are spared revelations about King's private life which tend to be the focus of attention in documentaries promising re-evaluations and "secret lives".

The most puzzling, though the least colourful of the eight, is Gorbachev. He came to power through the system, where the others had fought against it, and is still alive to defend his version of events. The charge sheet, where he is concerned, is considerably lightened by a commentary which has nothing at all to say about the break-up of the Soviet Union, or Gorbachev's efforts to contain it.

But such limitations are inevitable. On the whole, these programmes are well-designed and will provide a useful starting point for debate.

Teacher's notes are available on: Internet at: http:www.channel4.comschoolsguidesA new series of History in Action - 'The Home Front Through Home Movies' - begins on May 14

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