Joe Lycett vs The Oil Giant: Goliath walks away unhurt

TV review: Celebrity-led documentaries can be powerful, but this one fails to hit its target

Joe Lycett is quickly reduced to huffing outside a huge Shell skyscraper

Joe Lycett is quickly reduced to huffing outside a huge Shell skyscraper

 

Joe Lycett could probably have picked a smarter target for his activist satire than oil multinational Shell. The difficulty with Joe Lycett vs The Oil Giant (Channel 4, 9pm) isn’t that Lycett’s warning about Shell’s contribution to global warming isn’t sincere or necessary. It’s that Shell is such a monolith that one C-list British comedian arriving at its London offices with a potted plant (an ironic peace offering) was never going to achieve much.

Before long, Lycett is reduced to huffing outside the huge Shell skyscraper wondering if anyone is listening. They aren’t.

Celebrity-led documentaries can be heartfelt and powerful. Ian Wright’s unpacking of the trauma of domestic violence was one of the year’s most riveting films. And a recent Paul Merson thinkpiece about the evils of gambling exposed the soulless machinations of the betting industry.

With Shell however, Lycett, host of the Great British Sewing Bee, has come up against an immovable force. His charge is that the oil company is engaged in a deceptive strategy of “greenwashing”. Its advertising is full of images of wind farms and rippling green fields. In reality, asserts Lycett, the vast majority of its activities are focused on extracting fossil fuels from the planet.

“It feels dark,” he says. “I’ve become obsessed with Shell.” Later, he opines that as a queer person it is perhaps his destiny to clash with large corporations. “I’m naturally drawn to questioning authority,” he says. “The working world isn’t built for people who are a bit unusual.”

His central claim against Shell is valid. And yet it feels slightly random that Lycett would set himself against this company in particular. As a British activist, why not direct his ire at BP – which was founded as the colonial Anglo-Persian Oil Company – rather than its Dutch-headquartered rival?

And what about the inconvenient truth that Shell wouldn’t be dragging all those pollutants out of the ground were it not for the fact that we’re so eager to guzzle them up.

Then there is the timing. While the film is being made, the UK is struck by a Brexit-related petrol shortage, providing a glimpse of a world deprived of easily-accessible fossil fuels. Lycett’s implicit assertion that we’d be better off without them may not convince a recently frightened British public.

In other ways, he doesn’t help himself: his message would have more credibility were we not treated to shots of Lycett driving around in a Lexus.

Not that it matters. Shell refuses to engage, and Lycett falls back on making a satirical advertisement that he hopes will skewer the company. But the ensuing commercial, in which he spits out plastic poo, is repulsive and has the unintentional effect of making the satirist even less sympathetic than his powerful adversary.

In this supposed David v Goliath scenario, David’s weapons aren’t up to the job, and Goliath walks away unhurt.

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