Brazil with Michael Palin, the latest in a series of hugely popular travelogues that have been a staple of BBC television schedules for over two decades, is coming to an end. With the world's attention turning to Brazil ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the series has been an opportunity to shed light on this huge country of which we hear much - but know little.
It's a shame, therefore, that the series has seemed in many ways to be insulated from reality. The usual tropes and images that are associated with Brazil have been dutifully trotted out, with samba dancing and football appearing as expected in the series' first hour. Mention was also promptly made of Brazil's economic growth and its status as the world's sixth largest economy - achievements for which the country has been rightly lauded.
This however is only part of the story of the 'real' Brazil. There is a dark side to modern-day Brazil, a world apart from the lively cultural scene and raucous festivity that has been playing out on our screens every Wednesday evening. According to the World Bank, Brazil is one of the most economically polarised countries in the world, with a level of wealth inequality that compares unfavourably with countries such as the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Kazakhstan. You see this on the streets. In many parts of Recife, which Palin visited and spoke about its "increasingly lively local scene", you see children begging on the streets and girls as young as nine selling themselves for as little as a plate of food.
Recife is not the only city in Brazil to have this problem. Over half of urban households in the north-east of the country have no access to sewage systems. UNICEF has put the number of street children living and working on the streets of Brazil as high as two million. As many as one in three of these children will likely die before their 18th birthday. Organisations like Happy Child International, which provides care and accommodation to children in some of the poorest parts of Brazil, continue to do what they can with the support of the Brazilian authorities to provide food, care and support to the largely forgotten victims of Brazil's success, but often find that they can barely keep up with the needs and numbers of children on the streets.
My experience of Brazil when I visited at the end of last year was very different from Palin's cosy travelogue. Yes, I saw a country with a beautiful culture, rich history and kind-hearted people. I also saw in the slums of Recife human misery all around, with children living in squalid shacks among pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers.
It was this side of Brazil - or anything approaching a balanced perspective - that was so sorely lacking from Palin's programme. While watching I was occasionally seized by the hope that the programme may take another more daring route. At one point during the first episode, Palin visited the crumbling former slave port of Alcantara and explained how, of the 11 million Africans enslaved between the 16th and 19th centuries, more than a third were shipped to Brazil to work on plantations. The whole sorry episode was spoken about as though it were a historical anachronism with no bearing on contemporary Brazil. In fact, the legacy of slavery is clear for people to see in Brazil, especially in the poorer north-east of the country, where many of the descendants of slaves are begging and selling themselves to survive despite, it must be emphasised, the determined efforts of successive Brazilian governments.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the darker side of this otherwise wonderful country was little in evidence. Palin's programmes have always been popular, one imagines, because they are gentle and amiable. Nevertheless, it would be a very grave mistake indeed to take away from the programme the impression that all is well with the country. To do so would be a disservice to the largely forgotten victims of Brazil's success. There is a lot of work to be done before they too can share in the prosperity of this exceptionally charming but deeply divided country.Suggest a correction