Four countries, four mothers, four very different circumstances


TELEVISION:  A documentary about maternal mortality shows that poverty is a huge factor in surviving childbirth

Most evenings for the past several days there has been someone on the airwaves smugly spouting that we’re one of the safest countries in the world to have a baby, as if that statistic is relevant to the abortion debate.

But as Four Born Every Second (BBC One, Monday), the extraordinarily good documentary by Brian Hill, showed in every vivid frame, maternal mortality is an indicator of poverty and little else. Each year 287,000 women around the world die giving birth, mostly in African countries. This powerful film kicked off a series of documentaries to be broadcast in 180 countries this month, each exploring why, in the 21st century, a billion people still live in poverty.

The very different experience of childbirth globally is a broad story to try to tell in an hour; by focusing on four births, in the US, UK, Sierra Leone and Cambodia, Hill got to the heart of the poverty-fuelled issues. The voiceover reminded us several times that birth is a lottery.

In Cambodia the geographical accident of her birth meant that Neang’s baby was more likely to suffer malnutrition than go to school. Baby Michael and his mother survived the birth in Sierra Leone – one in eight women don’t – and if he’s as lucky as he was starting out he might reach that country’s average lifespan of 49.

In the UK, where maternal mortality is low, baby Finlay might live to 100. Curiously, in the US, where newly homeless Starr delivered her baby in a high-tech environment, the maternal-mortality rate has increased significantly in the past 20 years, as the gap between rich and poor has widened.

This was an unapologetically campaigning film, wearing its plea for justice and equality on its sleeve. The stoicism and strength of the women were inspiring, as was the clinic in Sierra Leone run by Médecins Sans Frontières. Dr Phillip de Almeida, an obstetrician, and his team are proving that spending about €1 a day per patient can mean that high maternal death rates are not inevitable.

This is a diamond-rich country, said the doctor, but it’s about how we choose to distribute wealth. Viewers tuning in expecting a BBC version of Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall maternity series One Born Every Minute – in which a dad is invariably eating a takeaway in the corner and a mother is screaming the house down – will have done a serious double take. But my bet is they stayed watching: Four Born Every Second was compelling.

The opening credits for the new series of Feargal Quinn’s Retail Therapy (RTÉ One, Sunday) are downbeat, with their gone-out-of-business notices, battered shutters and broken signs. Quinn walks down an empty street to a red shopfront where a signwriter is drawing the programme title over the door. But the shop is boarded-up and abandoned-looking – not exactly on-message for retail recovery.

Obviously retail is in the doldrums, but this is supposed to be an upbeat series, in which the one-time supermarket supremo, now a senator, helps struggling retailers turn their businesses around. For the series opener Quinn helped a family of Dublin fishmongers. Their tiny shop in Crumlin – it supports four family members, which is a lot of haddock no matter how you cut it – looked good in the end thanks to some cool rebranding. A revisit two months later showed the ideas had worked and business had picked up.

Quinn is a great man for belting out Molly Malone, but why so many shots of him in his own kitchen, cooking dinner, or standing in his garden, which appears to be the size of small park, with amazing sea views? This is not supposed to be about his lifestyle. And the end credits list two retail consultants. If Quinn is the retail guru and makeover expert, what was their involvement?

The sensationally named but quietly compelling documentary Living With My Stalker (Channel 4, Thursday) told the story of Dr Alison Hewitt, who joined a dating agency and met a Canadian businessman, Al Amin Dhalla. The 35-year-old doctor was the trusting type. She grew up in one of those chocolate-box English villages where the theft of a strimmer from a garden is regarded as a crimewave.

She didn’t ask too many questions about her new man, but her granny twigged that he was hiding something, so, unbeknown to Alison, her mum got out the Yellow Pages and hired a private investigator. Of course Dhalla was lying and was in fact a narcissistic psychopath with a criminal record.

Hewitt tried to break it off, but he wouldn’t accept it and began stalking the whole family, burning the parents’ house down, building up a weapons arsenal and taking out a contract on their lives. He’s in jail now, but the family still feels under threat and is considering going into a witness-protection programme. The odd mix of Liberty-print Middle England and a plot from the darkest crime thriller made it worth a look.

There are so many good drama series on at the moment that it would take something special to make me commit to another, but The Secret of Crickley Hall (BBC One, Sunday) looked promising. It has the top telly actors Suranne Jones and Tom Ellis as a couple with three children whose young son is abducted and presumed dead. She falls apart and he hits on the idea of cheering her up by moving out of London to the country. To a haunted house. With a creepy neighbour. And a sinister parson. The action flips between the present and the 1940s, when the spooky house was – guess what? – an orphanage. Before long she’s hearing ghostly voices. It’s all too daft and improbable to bother with.

Though, come to think of it, this week’s Homeland (RTÉ Two, Tuesday) was daft and improbable, too, and I’m still sticking with that, clinging on like someone who remembers the good times – tense, terrifying season one – and can’t quite believe the relationship, or season two, has turned out this bad.

This week Brody, the US congressman, was helicoptered from the middle of a cornfield, as though abducted by aliens, to meet top terrorist Abu Nazir, with Carrie running after him, still talking on her mobile phone, her swishy blond hair like a beacon for passing terrorists.

For want of something else to focus on I’ve lately become fixated with how Damian Lewis, as Brody, speaks without moving his lips or even opening his mouth very much. That’s what boredom does; I wouldn’t have even noticed that in series one.

Ones to watch Feeding the poor and peeking in at the rich

Part of the Why Poverty? series, Give Us the Money (BBC Four, Sunday) looks at 30 years of Bob Geldof and Bono’s campaign to make poverty history. Their work has earned them Nobel Peace Prize nominations, but what impact has it really had on Africa?

Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream (BBC Four, Tuesday ) looks at inequality in the US by homing in on the residents of 740 Park Avenue , an apartment building in Manhattan, home to more billionaires than any other building in the US.

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