Channel 4 is no stranger to controversial commissions, having proudly spearheaded the experimental TV format.
But for every hit, (The Circle), there are sure-fire misses which leave the channel looking tone-deaf, thoughtless and out-of-touch (note the recent backlash over the upcoming and dystopian-sounding reality show The Surjury).
While commissioners may be hoping their latest experiment, The British Tribe Next Door, will be the former, the first episode of the new faux-doc proves it’s very much the latter.
The premise, on paper, most definitely raised a few eyebrows about how it would be handled: the Moffatt family, best known for their wry commentary on Gogglebox and led by break-out star Scarlett, have moved into a replica of their County Durham house among the huts of the Himba people, a tribe in Namibia. The ‘experiment’ aims to show what the two cultures can learn from each other after living as neighbours for one month.
Immediately, there’s something slightly distasteful about the Moffatt’s quite literally having the home comforts of on-demand television, WiFi and running water at their fingertips while in Namibia – particularly when we see Scarlett head out with two female tribe members who have to dig down two metres for drinking water all while battering a baby cobra to death in the process.
The show itself is not meant to be offensively picking at how a very different culture lives, as I first feared – it’s clear to anyone watching that the Moffatt family are nothing but good-natured as they observe their surroundings. However, I can’t help but feel that they are entirely the wrong people to explore and learn about the Himba way of life.
Dad Mark, mum Betty and youngest daughter Ava-Grace don’t appear to be inquisitive enough to fully embrace and understand a hugely different culture, meaning the show misses several opportunities to share some genuine and interesting insight. Instead of asking how one member of the Himba feels after she encounters her reflection in a mirror for the first time, Betty only coos: “Yes, you. Beautiful!” When Mark is asked about how many girlfriends he has outside his marriage, Mark only uncomfortably replies “no comment” as opposed to asking about the dynamics of relationships among the Himba people. A chance to wear traditional Himba clothing and exploring what the outfits truly mean to the women who wear them is reduced to Scarlett becoming tearful about exposing her “fat bits” and Ava-Grace chipping in: “They’ve got their boobs out – it’s odd.”
Without any journalistic sense of a good story or even just basic curiosity, The British Tribe Next Door fundamentally results in the family observing day-to-day life of the Himba and saying: “That’s different”.
The show would have been far better if they had sent a proper documentary film-maker (a bit like Louis Theroux, only more balls to the wall – think Bruce Parry in the early 00’s series Tribal) to fully embrace the culture – living alongside the Himba people in their huts without scarpering off to a semi-detached house with clean running water.
The British Tribe Next Door continues Tuesdays at 9.15pm on Channel 4