The titles are as stupid as the plot of Eastenders, but Five has proved with last night's film about a deformed Ugandan boy, that it can make documentaries as well as anyone, says Mark Lewis.
Had George Orwell called it ‘the bloke what got tortured with a big rat in a scary room,’ then ‘1984’ might not have been the transformative novel it was destined to become. No doubt it would have seen print, but it would have been the print of a third rate publisher – a Channel 5 of the book world, if you will.
Yet the words would have been no different. And so it was in the latest of Five’s Extraordinary People series. The title might be more infantile than a shitty nappy, but The Boy With A New Head (Monday, Five, 9pm) could almost have been on BBC1.
It would come as no surprise, in fact, if the scriptwriters for the BBC’s flagship soap opera turned out to be moonlighting as the Channel 5 documentary-naming department.
For while The Boy With A New Head told the story of a 13-year-old Ugandan boy whose life-threatening birth deformation is corrected by a series of American operations, Eastenders (Monday, BBC1, 8pm) had just been telling the story of a doctor who encourages her husband to continue an affair with his mistress in order to gain custody of her unborn child.
The pictures of the gruesome operation on the Five documentary, during which Petero’s face was rolled up and down his skull like a rubber grip rolled off a cricket bat handle, would almost certainly have been scaled down on the BBC. But this was otherwise an uplifting tale of a near-impossible life transformed by medical science, compared with the utterly improbable stupid plots served up by bad actors on Eastenders.
There was, for sure, more than a touch of the colonials about it, as scientific curiosity replaced the religious zeal which Orwell would have recognised from the missionaries which ventured to Burma when he was a policeman there in the 1940s. And there was a transparent comparison at work as the bullied boy whose eyes petruded from his face like red-glazed snowballs and whose head pointed up in the shape of a cone, came to Texas and discovered ‘the machine which cooks food,’ and ‘the machine we keep food in.’
It was, nevertheless, difficult not to sympathise with his desire by the end to leave the country where a Witch Doctor said his life would be saved by the blood of two sacrificed chickens, in favour of the country which saved his life and furnished him with a new face. ‘The most amazing thing were the doors which open by themselves,’ he told the, now friendly, Ugandan children on his return. At 13, he’s on the brink of discovering that in his life doors are more likely to remain shut.