TV blog: The Last Pygmies

Benjie Goodhart / 04 July 2019

A fascinating insight into the lives of a pygmy tribe in central Africa, Plus, the best of the rest of the week’s TV.

Extreme Tribe: The Last Pygmies 1/3, Monday 8th July, 9pm, Channel 4

July means different things to different people. It means a birthday to my mother, who turns 80 this year – happy birthday, mum. I got you, um, a mention in my blog. It means the end of term to my kids, which means no work for six weeks. It means the end of term to my wife, which means a phenomenal amount of work for six weeks. And for me, it means the approach of the annual summer holiday. This fills most people with joy, but it tends to give me a deep sense of foreboding. For some reason, the idea of travelling too far from home fills me with anxiety. I can’t put my finger on why, and nor can the phalanx of medical professionals whose help I have sought in this matter. It remains a mystery to me, up there with the Rosetta stone, crop circles, and why my wife needs so many handbags.

Anyway, as I am nervously counting down the days until we go to the wildly exotic and uncharted foreign climes of Greece, it occurs to me that I probably wouldn’t be much good at Livia Simoka’s job. Livia is the presenter of a new three-part series on Channel 4, which sees her going and spending five months living with a remote tribe of pygmies, the Mbendjele, in the rainforests of the Republic of Congo.

This is the kind of thing we’ve seen before, with similar series from Benedict Allen, Will Millard, and the incomparable Bruce Parry, whose series Tribe proved an inspiration to Simoka when she was younger. But the difference here is the lack of, ahem, outside plumbing on the presenter. Livia is – stop me if I’m getting too technical here – a woman. And it means the show is quite distinct from those predecessors.

There are now less than 100,000 pygmies left in the Republic of Congo. Incidentally, don’t confuse the Republic of the Congo with the Democratic Republic of the Congo – I had no idea there were two. Anyway, Livia is off to Bonguinda, a remote village of 250 pygmies, deep in a remote corner of the rainforest. After five days travelling, she nears the town, and remarks on the fact that the Mbendjele are a nomadic people. “I hope they’re at home!” Errr, it might have paid to check that beforehand? If we’re in for three episodes of Livia wandering around an abandoned village occasionally shouting “Hellooo? Anyone home?” for days on end, I’m not sure I’m going to stay the course.

Luckily for us, and all the more so for Livia, they’re at home. And they give her quite the welcome. It’s immediately obvious that the Mbendjele are a people who are worth spending some time with. They are warm, engaging and funny. They are also most definitely pygmies. Livia towers over them like Stephen Fry in a class of toddlers. And it turns out she’s only 5’6”. They’re incredibly fit, though. A diet of fresh food and an outdoor, physical life, means they are, in modern parlance, ‘ripped’. Papa, the sexagenarian father of the house where Livia is staying, looks like he could crush walnuts with his abs. He’s like a miniature Poldark.

The diet is primarily plant-based, but one of the first things Livia does on arrival at the camp is go out hunting. The hunters manage to kill a monkey, which is unsettling enough even before Livia discovers that it has a small baby monkey clinging to it. On the menu tonight is the monkey’s internal organs. The rest will keep until tomorrow (not that you’d realise it by the amount of flies crawling all over it). This is not an experience for the fainthearted.

If that was a difficult watch, that’s nothing on later scenes, when Livia is on hand to witness a tribeswoman having her teeth sharpened – basically turned into fangs – through a mixture of chiselling and filing (and I don’t mean putting paper in folders). Brutal is not the word.

But it is the moments of humour, and of great tenderness, that really make this programme stand out – all the more so thanks to Livia’s ability to talk openly and frankly with the women of the tribe. The Mbendjele are a delight, and Livia Simoka is a real find – brave, willing, adventurous and inquisitive, not to mention the proud owner of a couple of ovaries. This is anthropological TV with a difference.

Why Can’t We Sleep?, Thursday 11th July, 9pm, ITV

In my case, there’s a fairly easy answer to this question. Last night, I got what felt like about twelve minutes of sleep because (a) my wife came in late and tipsy, then proceeded to snore as if someone had stuck a jackhammer in her septum. Then, in the middle of the night, the dog went nuts, and I had to go and calm her. Then my daughter woke up not feeling well, and needed medicine. Then my wife woke up all itchy and needed to take action. Sadly, there is not even a hint of a euphemism in that sentence. Then my daughter had a bad dream. Then the dog woke up and started crying at 5:30am. Then my son came in first thing, asking if he could play on his phone. I think I have more social interaction between midnight and 6am than a conductor on a packed commuter train.

In truth, though, I’m pretty lucky when it comes to sleep, last night’s Dante-esque horror show excepted. I go to sleep quickly, and if I am woken in the night, I can turn over and go back to sleep without issue. My wife, on the other hand, could have slept through Krakatoa, but if she is eventually woken in the night, she will lie awake until five minutes before we have to get up, whereupon she will fall into a state of deep catatonia.

I did once have a period of insomnia, though, and it was without a shred of a doubt the worst time of my life. It coincided with a period of acute stress, but it was horrific – I became utterly fixated with sleep, obsessed, and consumed with terror that it wouldn’t come. Which, naturally, became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tom Bradby, the ITV News at 10 presenter, had to take time off last year after a battle with insomnia, and said it was ten times worse than when he was shot.

This programme takes a look at the nation’s poor sleeping patterns, with particular emphasis on two cases of long-term insomniacs. Emma, 37, wakes up every night at around 2:30am, and prays for sleep. Her sleep is so bad it is affecting her mental health, and she is worried she’ll have a breakdown. “It’s torture. There’s only so much you can take until you crack.”

Meanwhile, Gary, 44, has had sleep issues for 25 years, and gets an average of 1-4 hours-a-night. He is exhausted, and miserable, and grumpy. Wife Iona is not immune to the impact of this. “It’s horrendous, and it’s not just Gary who suffers… It’s impacting our relationship, and it’ll have a detrimental effect if it doesn’t get sorted.”

The programme also meets Deborah, who sleeps pretty well, but has agreed to stay awake for 24 hours to see the effect of sleeplessness on her various test scores. In one of the more pointless sequences in TV history, we see her filming a video diary over 24 hours which increasingly is simply her complaining about being tired. Then, at the end, she sits some reasoning tests, and her scores have gone down. Whodda thunk?

Meanwhile Emma and Gary are sent to a sleep clinic at Oxford University. One of them is sent for what could prove to be a life-changing course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The other is about to get the shock of a lifetime…

The best… and the rest

Saturday 6th July

London’s Great Bridges: Lighting the Thames 1/3, 7pm, Channel 4: Charlie Luxton looks at the work of the Illuminated River Foundation, responsible for a £45m plan to light the 15 bridges of Central London with over 100,000 lights. Sounds a decent enough premise for a documentary, but a whole three-part series?

Race to the Death: Rome’s Charioteers, 8pm Channel 4: This documentary oversees the building and track-testing of a Roman racing chariot, and uncovers the story of Rome’s most successful driver.

Sunday 7th July

Women’s World Cup Final, 3:30pm, BBC One: Holland play the USA in women’s football’s showpiece final. But for an offside decision based on the length of Ellen White’s toe, and a scuffed penalty, it could have been England. Still, it’s been a tournament to remember, and a real watershed for the game.

Tipping Point: Lucky Stars 1/11, 8pm, ITV: Three celebs take on the weird penny-drop machine thingy in an attempt to win up to £20k for charity. Tonight’s trio is Alan Davies, Sally Phillips and Dr Ranj Singh.

War in the Blood, 9pm, BBC Two: Feature-length documentary following two terminally-ill patients through ground-breaking ‘first in-human’ trials of a treatment described as the beginning if the end of cancer.

Ashes 2005: The Greatest Series, 10pm, Channel 4: A look back at the mesmerising test series between England and Australia from 14 years ago, still regarded as the finest series in cricket history. Those getting all misty-eyed include Michael Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen and Shane Warne.

Monday 8th July

Dark Money 1/4, 9pm, BBC One: Drama, starring Jill halfpenny, Babou Ceesay and Max Fincham, following a struggling family that accepts a pay-off from a film-maker to keep silent about the molestation of their child. Continues tomorrow.

Tuesday 9th July

Britain’s Next Prime Minister: The ITV Debate, 8pm, ITV: Bozza and Jezza square up, with referee Julie Etchingham making sure there are no punches below the belt. This might be a good time to do some laundry.

Wednesday 10th July

8 Days to the Moon and Back, 9pm, BBC Two: Feature-length drama-documentary recreating the iconic journey taken 50 years ago, including the moment the world held its breath and big Neil took his small step. The intervening decades have rendered the achievement no less remarkable.

Thursday 11th July

Too Gay for God? 10:35pm, BBC One: Rev. Jide Macaulay, a gay member of the clergy, explores the place of LGBTIQ+ community within the Church of England.

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