TV review: Children of the Tsunami; Make Bradford British

Behind this children's-eye view of the tsunami lay a terrible wave of adult misery

'It crashes down on you with such force," explains 10-year-old Rikku at the start of Children of the Tsunami (BBC2), "then it pulls you back. And you die."

On March 11 last year, the tsunami created by a force nine earthquake along Japan's Pacific coast pulled back over 19,000 people. Among them were 74 children and nine teachers at the Okawa primary school, one of the two locations where the documentary team have chosen to let the children tell their story of the disaster. The other is around the edges of the exclusion zone surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant where the reactors, damaged in the earthquake, sent clouds of radioactive dust into the air and contaminated everything for miles around.

As with any documentary charting the unfolding of a tragedy through the eyes of its most innocent victims, Children of the Tsunami was intensely moving. The extremity of the situation rendered into simple, direct and artless speech ("It was how you'd imagine a big monster to be," says one. "I kept looking at the cars and wondering, 'Is Mum going to come?'") is impossibly affecting. A team must tread very carefully, permitting themselves no indulgences – all of which strictures were admirably cleaved to here – if it's not to feel in some way like a cheap trick.

The children's suffering, their patience, bewilderment and worry – tempered with an almost miraculous and infinite capacity to accept and adapt, even to a world they now map out in microsieverts – was beautifully caught. But behind them lay a terrible wave of adult misery, unrelievable pain and unanswered questions: about practical issues such as compensation and information about the effects and lifespan of the contamination, on which the government remains silent; and about more intangible, intractable matters such as how you shore up your psyche against a tsunami of grief. By the end you were left thinking, if you could banish the thought of the unseen radioactive forces infiltrating their cells, that perhaps the children were the lucky ones.

The bodies of six of the 74 children who died at Okawa were not recovered after the waters receded. Their parents dig with their bare hands and machinery when they can get it. Fishermen find the body of Naomi's daughter Koharu six months after the tsunami – in as unbearably corrupted a state as you would imagine, and there is no comfort anywhere. Bereaved parents confront the one surviving teacher, hoping at least for an explanation of why the children were not taken up the nearby hillside when the wave came, but – as we see in raw and awful footage filmed by a parent at the meeting with the school authorities – he can only explain how he saved himself and beg for forgiveness.

It was a powerful, dignified and dignifying film that made you hope the team would return to look more closely at the other issues raised in the months and years to come.

Make Bradford British (Channel 4) declared itself to be an attempt to discover what "Britishness" really is and whether multiculturalism can succeed in a country where, outside London, the different races and religions seem to segregate quite starkly and stubbornly. This tricky sociological question, decided diversity and community experts Laurie Trott and Taiba Yasseen (or possibly some idiot spark at the arse-end of a late night brainstorming session at Channel 4), could best be addressed by sticking eight people born and bred here (who had all failed the British citizenship test and therefore – I didn't quite follow the reasoning here – didn't know what Britishness was) in a house together for a week and, umm, watching what happened.

Nothing really of note, it turned out. That is, nothing beyond what we have seen a thousand times on the thousand similar semi-freak shows there have been before this. Roll up and watch a few layers of someone's ignorance and fear stripped back to reveal the – gasp! – actually non-diabolic heart that beats within. Gasp! as most people are shown to be slightly better, at bottom, than their daily lives allow them to be. Hiss! at the one villain stubbornly refusing to be enlightened yet. Marvel! as you see that even people of the same race or religion can disagree.

Add! to the teetering pile of "passing the time/pissing it away" programmes that towers over the schedules and Despair!


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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