For Impolite, a Comedy of Manners


Sick of body odor on subway trains and chain smokers in restaurants? Had your car boxed in by double parking or a good film ruined by the couple in front chatting? Fed up with litterbugs and road hogs?

Take heart. In Portugal at least, slobs and other public nuisances are getting their wrists slapped by a government television campaign telling them to mind their manners.

With a catchy jingle and a slogan--"Portugal is Not Just Yours"--30 comic sketches costing $425,000 are being screened to persuade the Portuguese to be more considerate of their fellow citizens.

The Portuguese are far from being the lager louts of Europe. More reserved and softly spoken than their Spanish neighbors, foreign visitors find them pleasant and courteous.

"In Britain we could learn a thing or two from their manners," said Mary, a British nurse living in Lisbon.

But as Planning Minister Luis Valente de Oliveira points out, the Portuguese are not very public-spirited.

"The Portuguese are not a bad-mannered lot, but they are careless, and that costs a lot of money," said Valente de Oliveira, who masterminded the campaign.

Their cavalier attitude toward litter and other people's peace and quiet, their imaginative parking--double rows of cars on the pavement are commonplace--are wasteful to the police and public services in terms of cost and man-hours expended.

"We have to persuade people that individual freedom ends when it clashes with other people's freedom," said the minister. "I don't pretend I'm going to change centuries of culture with 60 million escudos, but it's a start, an appeal to conscience."

The sketches star top comedians Herman Jose, Raul Solnado and Nicolau Breyner.

Against a cartoon-strip backdrop, Herman Jose, frequently in drag, upbraids supermarket food fondlers, smelly commuters who pick their noses, line-jumpers and drivers who park on tram lines.

In rapid-fire rhyming couplets, he tells an obnoxious shopper:

Your manners offend the heavens

Let's see if you can't be more courteous

Portugal is not just yours.

Raul Solnado puffs smoke in fellow diners' faces, hogs a public telephone and plays deafening music poolside, collecting a few black eyes in the process.

"Why am I so stupid?" asks the chastened Solnado at the end of each sketch.

Nicolau Breyner and his model "family" confront beach pests, owners who let their dogs foul the pavement and a slovenly family littering picnic sites and country lanes.

The model family sings a trifle smugly:

What a lack of public spirit

What a lack of manners

The roads are not wastepaper baskets

Nor highways rubbish bins.

The ministry has chosen comedy to combat antisocial behavior because half a century of dictatorship, which ended with the leftist revolution in 1974, made the Portuguese resentful of anything resembling authoritarian dogma.

They would refuse to cooperate if asked to inform on neighbors with bald tires, Valente de Oliveira said.

But for sociologist Maria Luisa Schmidt, the government campaign addresses the symptoms rather than the malady.

She says staying out of both world wars meant forfeiting the sense of solidarity that developed in some European societies, while the paternalistic dictatorship of Antonio Salazar allowed the Portuguese no active role in society.

"So we don't have a tradition of participation," she said.

More recently, Schmidt added, the center-right government of Anibal Cavaco Silva, in power since 1985, had encouraged "rabid consumerism" rather than social responsibility.

The campaign does not tackle Portugal's atrocious driving standards, which makes its roads among the deadliest in Europe and which Schmidt diagnosed as a symptom of the same social malady.

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