Letter from London: The BBC’s Obamamania

Carol Nahra looks at Obama fever in Britain and the large number of docs that have been made to mark the occasion.
January 21, 2009

Carol Nahra looks at Obama fever in Britain and the large number of docs that have been made to mark the occasion.

What a long strange trip it’s been. Just when you thought that Britain couldn’t get any more fervent about the election of one Barack H. Obama, after an election campaign that surpassed all others in both length and great dramatic narratives, along came inauguration week. In addition to all the extended news programs, and special newspaper supplements – today’s Guardian is a ‘souvenir issue’ with eleven pages of coverage – the BBC has broadcast a number of documentaries to mark the big occasion.

On Monday night ‘Panorama’ asked whether Obama would be able to deliver on his first promise as a presidential candidate: to sign a universal health care reform plan by the end of his first term in office. America’s dysfunctional health care system perpetually amazes Europeans in its inequity and profit-driven excesses – this is neither the first nor the last documentary to tackle the subject. The program traveled to rural Kentucky where thousands of people without health insurance had come in the middle of the night to a stadium where a third world charity was offering free health care. It soberly examined the power of a health industry lobbying system which successfully persuaded Congress to pass a law limiting Congress’s ability to negotiate affordable medicines from pharmaceutical companies, making Americans pay more for their medicine than anywhere in the world.

On a lighter note, late Monday night BBC 2 broadcast President Hollywood, which first aired on BBC 4 in September as part of an election mini-season. In it, Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland trolls through the archives to see how American presidents have been played on the big and small screens. He takes the most delight in the prescient The West Wing, and interviewed a writer who detailed how he modeled Democratic candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) on Obama, who had just come to national prominence after delivering his now infamous 2004 Democratic Convention speech.

The day after the election, BBC news head Peter Horrocks admitted that their pundits had not exactly matched the spirit of this groundbreaking election: ‘I think if we had thought about it probably we could have done with one or two more African-American faces on the panels,’ he said in an interview. ‘I have got senior responsibility within BBC news for diversity and it was one of the things that struck me overnight and struck me this morning. It’s something that we still haven’t made enough progress on and it’s a good reminder.’ Two and a half months on, and the BBC has experienced Afro-Caribbean reporter Clive Myrie, not only reporting from the Mall during the inauguration ceremony, but presenting his own documentary, entitled Obama – His Story on BBC 2 yesterday evening. In the hour-long film he retraces Obama’s path, and his journey from a Hawaiian childhood to politicization in Chicago and on to the presidency.

While much of it was now well traveled territory, it contained some nice detail. In it, Jesse Jackson recalls how Obama sought his advice while perched on a stool in the gym they both attended. And Obama’s close friend Marty Nesbitt recounts having dinner at the Obama household the night after November’s election, where conversation focused on everything except the presidency. ‘Let me get this straight,’ asks Myrie. ‘Being leader of the free world was the huge gray elephant in the room that no one talked about?’ ‘Exactly,’ replied Nesbitt. ‘Nobody dwelled on the whole notion of the presidency – it was just too big to even contemplate.’

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