The advent of Freeview has increasingly meant that my life away from home is dictated by the TV schedule. A particular favourite of mine at the moment is the brace of apparently well-meaning, but hilariously exploitative documentaries.
Most are deliberately awful: the producers cannot really claim to be ‘exposing the truth’ or ‘digging deeper’, because as soon as you whack your cameras somewhere a bit common, the sheer ignorance of our populace ensures good entertainment. A fortnight ago, recently ‘out’ rugby player Gareth Thomas fronted a programme in which Man City football fans were asked how they would feel about a gay player in their team, to a chorus of, “Backs to’t wall lads!”. The gold standard in this field occurred semi-accidentally, when large parts of the north of England flooded. The denizens of Hull, bless them, were asked by broadcast journalists how they felt about the state of their homes: “We didn’t even have insurance,” they said, “I’ve got four children in this flat, what am I supposed to do?” Some hoped, after water covered the city for weeks, that its host virus had been washed away.
For those on-campus readers without a television – fear not! YouTube has a plethora of popcorn-worthy moments: a search of ‘Wife Swap USA’ will bring up the delightful Guastaferro family. Pageant Princess Alecia, unable to spell ‘America’, receives a gift every day from the year-round Christmas tree. Watch how her parents marvel at her “sparkling” and being a “gorgeous people”. A recent Panorama production focusing on children’s health in Liverpool saw one infant muse, “Now [after a healthy eating course] I know I’ve got to oven cook my turkey drummers, not put them in the deep fat fryer”. For those who like to see US exports early, I heartily recommend Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. The only person taking it with any degree of seriousness is the host himself. “HERE IS A COFFIN!!” he cries at some large West Virginians; “PUT THAT CHIPOTLE CHICKEN DOWN!!!” he wails at shamefaced, diabetic mothers who feed their spawn a diet exclusively composed of BBQ boneless wings and Wendy’s triple stacks.
Every so often, though, the programme makers do construct something a bit special. ‘The Boy whose Skin Fell Off’ is a famously brilliant piece of televsion featuring Jonny Kennedy, a now deceased sufferer of Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa. We saw Jonny plan his own funeral to the smallest detail, and unflinchingly reveal his father’s cruelty. Alas, Channel 4’s Bodyshock series often falls short. Past programme titles include ‘Megatumour’, ‘The Girl who Cries Blood’, with tonight’s 10pm installment dubbed ‘The Twins who Share a Brain”. Nevertheless, check 4OD for ‘My daughter, the Mermaid’, a wholly essential piece of work featuring Shiloh, 10, who was born with her legs fused together. It brought this cynic to tears. Shiloh, who talks in a mature Southern drawl, goes to a five-day camp for disabled children. She feels uncomfortable and isolated. Already hiding her frustrations at the half-hour circus of having her colostomy pouch changed, another disabled child tells her, in that sort of rehearsed, American way, “By the time it gets to the end, you won’t want to leave.”
Shiloh smells the bullshit; she sinks her head and relents, “yeah”.