The Daily Telegraph
Whitehouse reveals the truth about our filthy rivers
One of the best kept secrets in the town of Hay-on-wye is a bend in the River Wye where a meadow is bordered by a pebble beach. We discovered it last summer, on a sunny day when the water looked invitingly clear. Our younger child paddled and skimmed stones, and our elder plunged right in for a swim. Idyllic, I thought. Until I mentioned it to someone days later, and they told me about the levels of poultry farm waste polluting the Wye.
The impact of agriculture is one of the factors examined in Paul Whitehouse: Our Troubled Rivers (BBC Two). The comedian can often be found standing in Britain’s waterways while filming Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, and considers them to be “the closest thing to paradise that we have”.
But those rivers are filthy. Sometimes that is quite obvious to the naked eye – the programme contained grim video footage of human waste being released into the water – and at other times the effects are hidden. “That pollution isn’t neon, like in films. It’s pretty much invisible,” said Whitehouse as he surveyed a designated bathing spot in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, where untreated sewage is regularly discharged into the river by the local water company. A campaigner named Mark Barrow
went for a brief dip in the River Wharfe and emerged five minutes later holding wet wipes and used sanitary towels. As for the waste he had filmed tumbling out of a pipe? “A turd’s eye view,” as Whitehouse put it.
Yorkshire Water are not alone in this, as the Telegraph’s Clean Rivers Campaign has demonstrated. In the River Tame in Greater Manchester, one study found the highest concentration of microplastics recorded on any river bed in the world. What this programme did was explain the problem very clearly, and in Whitehouse’s low-key but engaging style. He read out various lengthy and legally-required statements from water companies, attempting to keep his tone neutral. But at one point he said simply: “I still find it astonishing that water companies would put untreated sewage into our rivers. I can’t begin to rationalise it on any level.”
But at least people are trying to do something about it. Not just the fiery Feargal Sharkey (“a real force to be reckoned with, and I certainly wouldn’t want to get on his grumpy side,” said Whitehouse, admiringly) but members of the public. One young campaigner in the Lake District was featured but most of the people that Whitehouse met were, he said, “a bit like me – grey-haired and politely annoyed”.
To the British, the downfall of Bill Cosby was interesting to note but not something that hit us hard. He was another sleazy man in the entertainment industry who turned out to be a sexual predator, one of many reputations to tumble in recent years. Across the Atlantic, though, Cosby was “America’s Dad”, beloved as Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show and revered for his decades-long career.
That career, the carefully cultivated image and the alleged crimes committed against women are intelligently explored in We Need to Talk About Cosby (BBC Two). I’m not sure how many British viewers will sit down to watch four hours’ worth of film on this subject, told through an American lens. But it is a fine piece of work, with film-maker Walter Kamau Bell refusing to take the easy route.
By that I mean that he confronts the reluctance of black Americans to believe that Cosby could be guilty, and the conflicting feelings they have about him now (Cosby was jailed in 2018 for drugging and molesting a woman, then freed in 2021 on a technicality; 60 women have come forward to make allegations against him). “It doesn’t matter what colour you were, that’s the dad you wanted,” someone said of Cliff Huxtable, and that is true – I remember watching The Cosby Show as a kid and adoring him – but for black Americans, it went much deeper.
Cosby broke ground as a comedian, and a black performer on television – the first to play a heroic male lead, in the 1960s show I Spy – and presented a positive image of black, middle-class success in The Cosby Show. He changed the industry. He was a moral authority and a father figure, which is why so many feel a sense of betrayal..
All the contributors here accepted the allegations of Cosby’s behaviour, detailed in the film in case after case. But they spoke with honesty about where that leaves their feelings for him. One man says he still loves Cosby, and that wouldn’t change. One woman, when asked, “Who is Bill Cosby now?” replies: “He’s a rapist who had a really big TV show once. I can’t think of him any other way.”
Paul Whitehouse: Our Troubled Rivers ★★★★
We Need To Talk About Cosby ★★★★