Alt-TV: The Luckiest Nut in the World

Friday, August 30, 2002 by

One of the great strengths of Channel 4 has always been that it can completely surprise you with a programme that you simply weren’t expecting to see. It’s somewhat disorientating to say the least to see a whimsical, faintly surreal animation straight after an ordinary weekday edition Channel 4 News, but as it soon became apparent, Alt-TV: The Luckiest Nut in the World was much more than just a whimsical, faintly surreal animation.

Cleverly drawing in its audience with a prolonged introduction that made it look as though the viewer was about to enjoy half an hour’s worth of the adventures of some talking nuts, this entry in the third series of Alt-TV had weightier issues on its mind. Hosted by a drawling, guitar-strumming American peanut backed by an ensemble of close harmony nuts that resembled a bizarre experiment in genetic modification involving the acapella gospel group Take Six, the programme focused around the numerous inequalities and incidences of unethical practice that blight international trade in nuts. The stories of several third world nations and their struggle to successfully export cashew nuts, brazil nuts and groundnuts in the face of poor monetary advice and deliberate economic sabotage were related, and then contrasted with the corresponding history of the American peanut, which has been heavily subsidised and supported.

However, this was no mere exercise in preachy tautology, and neither was it couched in the sometimes off-putting over-earnestness of the sort of programme that would normally tackle this kind of subject. The American peanut kept up his narration throughout, constantly handing over to the other nuts to try out their harmonies on a harsh economic fact, and occasionally handing over to a cheap-looking sock puppet to explain the meaning of complex monetary terminology in simple terms. All of this was intercut with redubbed archive footage, eschewing the lazy innuendo-laden “comedy” that usually gets applied to similarly manipulated archive film in favour of basic facts about international trade being read out in boring or comically accented voices.

Coming across like a strange fusion of Victor Lewis-Smith and Mark Thomas, Alt-TV: The Luckiest Nut in the World was a programme that was impossible to ignore on any level once you’d started watching it. On the one hand, it was impossible to avoid smirking at the animated nuts singing “the IMF, mmmmmmmmmmmmm, they put their foot down!”, yet at the same time it was also impossible to avoid taking in the blunt facts that the programme was relating or fully understanding the unfair nature of the trade practices at work in the world today. It’s easy to ignore a graph charting an economic downturn if it’s presented to you with the cold graphical style, ominous narration and sparse editing that characterises lterally dozens of programmes per week. It’s much harder to ignore it, however, if it splurges onto the screen like some escaped Nickelodeon graphic and is explained to you by a chorus of singing nuts. Far from alienating any viewers who weren’t particularly interested in the subject matter, the programme actually drew them in, entertaining and amusing them while never losing its grasp on the need to make its point as unequivocally and effectively as possible.

Some may sneer and deride this as a “dumbed down” way of tackling a serious topic, but the blunt truth of the matter is that a lot more thought and intelligence went into the planning of Alt-TV: The Luckiest Nut in the World than goes into the average identikit production line current affairs documentary. The intention here was clearly to reach out to a wider audience than might normally be expected for a show with such heavyweight subject matter, and the makers took a dazzling and refreshingly different approach to accomplishing this feat. Certainly, it’s likely that more than a few stragglers left over after the news and channel-surfers who had grown tired of Match of the Day will have found their interest sufficiently aroused to persuade them to keep watching. What’s more, they probably learned quite a lot in the process.

Emily James, who wrote, directed and produced this remarkable piece of television, was previously responsible for the similarly inclined A Brief History of Cuba in D Minor, a short film that tells the complex story of the nation through a mixture of cabaret and American football, and it’s encouraging to see that, despite well-founded criticisms of some of their output in recent years, Channel 4 are continuing to support such burgeoning and thoroughly distinctive and original talent.

So next time you feel like watching something for the sake of watching something, go to Channel 4 first. You never know when you’re going to stumble across a programme as great as this.


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