Tune in, Switch off - Mandela and Mo make us take notice

12th February 2010 at 00:00

As a teacher in Zambia in the 1970s, I came to love Africa and its people, despite occasionally experiencing the discomforting hostility a few understandably felt for their "former colonial masters", as a message on the staffroom board once described us. South Africa remained out of bounds because of its racist regime, but the landscapes were memorably captured in the location shots in Mrs Mandela (BBC Two).

A lorry chugging along a dirt road, taking Winnie (Sophie Okonedo) from her home to a grim shanty town, reminded me of the dust, distances and danger. I once took the cast of a school play by truck on such roads to perform in a village miles away. I was into community cohesion even before it was invented.

Told in flashbacks from the magic moment of her husband's release after 27 years' imprisonment, Okonedo's compellingly physical performance took us inside the painful heart of Winnie's tortured life.

During visits to Nelson's Robben Island prison, she endured de-humanising conversations with him behind a glass screen. No wonder the marriage was doomed: she would have had more chance of a relationship with cashier number three in the Post Office. And the house search harassments by the petty police were more regular than trains on the Northern Line.

David Morrissey's Major Swanepoel, a spit-spraying torturer with turbo-charged saliva glands and face like a puff adder, was only just on the right side of deranged as he tried to break her indomitable spirit during her own 18 months in prison.

He taught her hatred; she believed it liberated her. In fact, it made her the monster - abused turned abuser - who later sanctioned the murder of Stompie Seipei.

There were symbolic victories such as a Rosa Parks moment when she insisted on buying and wearing a dress from a whites-only store. It was bright yellow - the colour of the African National Congress - and you could feel power shifting through the force of her personality. "When she walks into a room the sun comes with her," said Nelson Mandela. But years clouded by brutality led to her eclipse.

Like Winnie, Mo Mowlam also brought sun and fun into any room she entered, using her personality to change history. Julie Walters' triumphant portrayal in Mo (Channel 4), screened just as Northern Ireland politicians were again locked in negotiations, reminded us how Mowlam's fearless, no-nonsense passion helped secure the Good Friday Agreement while coping with a malignant brain tumour.

Alcohol, cigarettes, swearing and sex kept her going. "Disinhibition", a symptom of the illness, meant she just got stuck in, showing Lord Trimble her suitably coloured orange knickers and telling negotiators: "No cocks on the table."

To us, Tony Blair may have been Prime Minister, but to her he was "babe". Although as she was demoted he became an expletive-blasted bastard.

Julia Langdon, Mowlam's biographer, claims that Mo was part of the Durham University drug-taking and drinking scene in the late 1960s. As her contemporary at Durham, I'm disappointed I wasn't invited.

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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