Wednesday, February 27

Review: Freaky Eaters and Wonderland: The 92 Year Old Danger Junkie

Some very different interpretations of freaks leaves Mark Lewis rather cold

Isn’t it a shame when words are dumbed down? I don’t want to be an old codger here, but ‘gay’ used to be a perfectly good way of describing a homosexual, now it’s been appropriated by school kids to mean something not terribly good. ‘Sick’ used to be a decent way of describing the act of intercourse with ones own sister. Now it could be perfectly well employed to describe the act of having sex with, say, a pair of sisters from a different family altogether.

But the worst of all is ‘freak.’ It used to be the moniker of thumb sized girls who dance for biscuits, the grossly deformed, and South Koreans. Now it can mean practically anything. By rights, Freaky Eaters (Wednesday, 9pm, BBC3) should have been about Elephant Man-style unfortunates who consume potatoes through their bottoms.

Instead it was about a man who didn’t like vegetables. Admittedly his girlfriend was a vegetarian, which adds some carrots to their particular casserole, but the man hardly belongs in a circus. He only ate meat, he didn’t know what cheese was, and he was terrified of a bowl of fruit. But the freakiest thing about him was that after six years in a relationship with his girlfriend, the pair still lived with her mother.

Over on BBC2 David was still living with his father Ron, but Wonderland: the 92 Year Old Danger Junkie (9.50pm) was far too gently moving a programme to name call. The Wonderland series might catalogue unusual people but the ubiquitously meaningless ‘freak’ is not a word which is going to end up in the final edit – even if Ron Cunningham, aka The Great Omani at least had the decency to run off to the circus.

That, however, was 70 years ago. Now, at 92, he was the oldest stunt man in the world.

The film began with a South Korean film crew following him around while he set fire to himself, walked around on broken bottles, and smashed glasses on his throat, and the peculiar South Korean journalist jumped around and squealed melodramatically like some Japanese, geriatric, punishment, wank fantasy.

But even if Ron, (who during the film suffered a stroke, and was diagnosed with prostate cancer and liver failure) was a local side show, the programme was never going to fall into that trap. It was really a sad story about an ageing man’s interdependent relationship with his ancient father.

As his father’s assistant, who had never enjoyed show business, David had suffered his father’s stunts for years. Now he was a full time carer whose endless asides to his dogs revealed an unhappy, lonely soul. The Great Omani, despite his ailments was able to go to his death with his cigars and glasses of whiskey, asking “isn’t it rather nice to have been someone?” Now in his 60s, let’s hope there is still time for his son to leave his mark.

Tuesday, February 26

Review: American Inventor and Supersize versus Superskinny

The latest reality programming reveals a dearth of imagination stinkier than an anal thermometer, says Mark lewis

Here’s an idea for a programme: A variety food show in which teenagers vote whose celebrity excrement Gillian McKeith will sing a business proposition to.

We could call it American Shit Idol, and have Alan Sugar head a panel of bastards telling deluded teenagers their turds aren’t shitty enough.

If Channel 4 doesn’t commission it, then Virgin 1 will.

In American Inventor (Tuesday, 9pm, Virgin 1) it almost has. Even if the concept isn’t inherently shit Simon Cowell’s involvement as executive producer is a guarantee.

Cowell, the critic, has already cracked America by sitting on one side of a panel and telling deluded teenagers how to sing. He was followed by Piers Morgan, the former newspaper editor, who has also cracked America by sitting on one side of a panel and telling deluded teenagers how to publish faked pictures in their own newspapers (possibly). Now Cowell is looking to crack America with Peter Jones, the wealthy entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den bastard, who sits on one side of a panel and tells crackpot inventors why they’re wasting their time.

But try as he might, Jones just isn’t camp enough. Yes, he’s English; yes he’s a bastard, but he’s no ugly sister. Cowell, meanwhile, camps his way through American Idol like a construction worker in ballet shoes. But in trying to reproduce the Evan Davis-inspired, cross-eyed brilliance of Dragons’ Den, Cowell has fallen right on his tutu.

No matter the million dollar prize for the best invention; no matter the sexed up graphics; screaming hopefuls in the crowd; and camera work designed to set the judges up as WWF-style villains, American Inventor is not nearly as compelling as Dragon’s Den. It’s not even as compelling as American Idol.

Its one saving grace is George Foreman, whose qualifications for being on the panel is 30 years of getting punched in the head and ten years of endorsing a portable cooker. He is like a drunk tourist in a sombrero shop. “I could use something like that,” he says tucking a straw donkey under his arm. “I could use something like that,” he says with a suitcase full of miniature Eiffel Towers. “I could use something like that” he says to a man who has invented an umbrella/radio.

The terrible thing is this: Foreman’s acquiescences are no more rash than the commissioner of light entertainment on Channel 4. Evidently “I could use something like that,” is exactly the sort of phrase he used when someone pitched the idea of an hour long, primetime dieting variety show which would pit a very fat person somehow against an unhealthily slim person, and run various features about dieting in between.

The name: Supersize versus Superskinny (Tuesday, 8pm, Channel 4).

The premise: fat lass and skinny lass eat each others’ diets for a week.

The twist: this week the fat lass ate healthy food and the skinny one ate the unhealthy takeaways. Cue much contrived revulsion from the fat girl at the prospect of eating chips and sausages, and much genuine chaviness from the skinny one at the prospect of eating anything not available in McDonalds.

Now split the narrative up with Gillian McKeith, taking a long enough break from poking through people’s turds and pretending to be a doctor, to introduce some tedious feature on snack food.

I couldn’t watch it to the end but I assume supersize and superskinny eventually both decided their diets were equally unhealthy and resolved to change their dietary habits in future. Hurrah! Then viewers text voted for the fat one to eat the skinny one with a fat-free side salad.

Monday, February 25

Television review: Masterchef, University Challenge and Transexuals in Iran

Paxman might be scary, but he's not nearly as terrifying as a pork mousse, says Mark Lewis

Won’t there just be a giant hole in BBC2’s evening schedules when Masterchef (Monday-Thursday) finally concludes this week? Do the hosts Greg and John just love talking to each other in rhetorical questions? And just how curious are the hosts’ various other verbal ticks?

When not rhetorical questions: Short sentences. No verbs.

One bald: Desserts good. One sartorially challenged: A bit Australian. Both orally identical.

Their bizarre delivery gives the pair a Phil-and-Grantish gruff masculinity. But because the few verbs they do employ are mostly to express terror (and then, terror of food) their hard-man image is rather compromised. They are like a couple of effete bouncers – just tough enough to prevent pissed-up 16 year olds from getting into nightclubs in white trainers. Just gay enough to find the prospect of an 18-year-old who plates up a dish of pork mousse “truly frightening.”

“The cream scared me,” said Greg or John.

“It’s the mousse which scares me,” said the other.

Both are equally terrified of the prodigious Emily who has fought her way through to this week-long final with bouts of culinary alchemy so appreciated by Greg and John, that you begin to wonder whether Jesus’s water-into-wine miracle wasn’t just some first century party trick.

Even so, should Emily fall at this fearsome final hurdle, she does have a fall back prize. The voiceover lady who gives us occasional relief from Greg and John’s peculiar vernacular tells us she has a place at Oxford University.

Whether that turns out to be a booby prize is a question worthy of an ask on University Challenge (Monday, 8pm BBC2). “Are you happy to hang out exclusively with brilliant nerds?”

Perhaps it is the steeples of that ancient city, perhaps it is the history seeping out of the walls, most likely it is the perpetuation of fop-like donishness at the application stage which prevents oiks from making it into those hallowed halls. But prevented they are.

The captain of the Magdelene College, Oxford team in this semi-final looked like a cross between Andy Warhol and a young Richard Whitely. The captain from Sheffield looked like the kind of four-eyed psycho who talks to you unbidden in kebab shop toilets.

But this psycho was sharper than a bully’s compass and Oxford were thoroughly thrashed.

A thrashing would be the least of the worries of some of the unfortunates in Transexuals in Iran (Monday, 9pm, BBC2). In Iran, we learn, homosexuality is illegal and sex changes are not. Homosexuals could end up getting stoned. Transexuals are ten times more likely to get their operations in Tehran than they would be in a European capital

They have an illness which has a cure. The illness is homosexuality.

Finally, something for Greg and John to get truly scared of.