Tuesday, April 29

Reviews: Dispatches Undercover, Embarrassing Bodies

Making money out of selling vaginas is pretty tawdry stuff, says Mark Lewis

Mobile phone shops are selling vaginas to unsuspecting punters who only came in to get a pay as you go Nokia. That’s was the shocking finding of Dispatches Undercover (Monday, Channel 4, 8pm) which didn’t really find out anything nearly as interesting.

Rather, the hour-long show got a chap who looked a lot like Jeff Goldblum, to talk interminably about how phone shop salespeople try to up-sell customers more expensive deals. Some 20 minutes into the show, we were still being told at excruciating length that sales staff get a bigger commission for selling a contract deal than they do for selling a pay as you go.

‘Few customers are told that 18 month contracts are lengthy commitments,’ intoned Goldbum gravely. The Independence Day star didn’t spell out that 18 month contracts probably last around, ooh, 18 months, because, well, it does say so quite explicitly.

One interviewee told us that Carphone Warehouse and Phones 4U, ‘want to sell you the highest value contracts, and lock you in as long as possible,’ because – you’re not going to believe this – a higher yielding deal will earn the salesperson a higher commission. What next? Someone selling plutonium to terrorists earns more cash than someone selling classified advertisements in the Thomson Directory?

There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of consumer champion programme, the real problem is Dispatches uses the same production devices and portentous music for explaining the difference between a pay-as-you-go and a contract tariff as they would the sexual abuse of orphans, or the alien invasion of Guildford.

The faces of whistle blowing sales staff are blacked out, and their voices disguised as if they were Iraqi double agents revealing the location of those missing WMD. Rather than explaining that selling an 18 month contract is worth £15 in commission to the salesperson.

For sure, the phone networks have some questions to answer. Customers, for example, are often sold new contracts over the phone by companies claiming to work for Orange and promising the customers their original contracts will be terminated. They are not. And Orange shamefully refuses to terminate the original contract, leaving customers with two expensive and lengthy contracts rather than the one they can afford.

But this is largely just a polemic about companies trying to make money, when companies all over the world will do almost anything top do that.

Public Relations firms are famous for dreaming up campaigns for companies to sell unsuspecting consumers products under the guise of some spurious national celebration. So we have National Bed Month which encourages people to sleep more, National Greeting Card Week which encourages people to thank friends for unwanted gifts with jokes that someone else wrote. And now, according to Embarrassing Bodies (Channel 4, 9pm), National Vagina Day, for that half of the population which has never really considered getting one.

The three quacks rolled out for Embarrassing Bodies Week (the manky cocks are here on Thursday, girls!) talk about everything with such Jamie Oliver-esque chipper enthusiasm that you almost imagine that it’s rolls of pukka monkfish volauvents you are looking at rather than skanky rolls of extra vaginal skin.

And look, there isn’t a television reviewer in the country who isn’t wondering why someone with an illness too embarrassing to go to the doctor in their local clinic about, would go to see a doctor on television in front of millions. But it’s an unavoidable observation, so here goes.

There is no doubt that there is a freakshow fascination to Embarrassing Bodies. There shouldn’t be anything compelling about watching a doctor sticking her fingers up the anus of a giant women, who was made to feel ‘very embarrassed even now’. But when she says, ‘I’m growing old and I don’t want to be alone anymore,’ there really is. Even a negligent doctor might be able to advise a woman looking for a man to avoid having anal tags removed from her anus on television, but these docs are downright immoral.

One poor man who had lost 12 stone and was left with tits the size of beanbags was made to feel like, “I don’t want to show [the millions of viewers at home my horrendous tits] but I know I have to.”

This alas, is the sad state of confessional television.

And it’s on all week folks, so get your fill.

Friday, April 18

Reviews: Come Dine With Me; The Graham Norton Show

Come Dine With Me is strangely compelling because the guests are so compellingly strange, says Mark Lewis

When you ask a bisexual man with a 550 piece Barbie collection to explain the difference between having sex with a woman and a man, you don’t necessarily expect a solemn response. But when Brian was told the main difference was the absence of a cock, he contrived to be offended anyway.

“Lee did not conduct himself with dignity tonight,” he said, before going off to plan a dinner party which included a dessert of bananas, tinned tangerine and whipped cream, in a room with a framed picture of Margaret Thatcher on the wall.

It was the first in the latest series of Come Dine With Me (Wednesday, Channel 4, 8pm) and a microcosm of the whole concept: weirdoes trying to outdo each other in the classnessness of their dinnertime.

It is one of Channel 4’s format documentaries. But where - especially in the early series’ - Wife Swap gave us drama and personal realisations of Shakespearean pathos, Come Dine With Me offers nothing deeper than a dented roasting tin.

It’s cheaper than a 12 pack of own brand, low alcohol lager from Lidl, but it’s still weirdly compelling in a Victorian voyeuristic kind of way. Four unusuals spend consecutive nights hosting dinner parties for each other for a prize of £1,000.

This week it was Brian, the local conservative councillor wannabe with a face like Eamonn Holmes and a picture of Maggie Thatcher in his living room; Lee, the drunk bisexual with a sinister collection of Barbie dolls; a third woman too non-descript to even remember her name; and Brenda, the retard.

I’m not a fan of freak shows per se. But Brenda belonged in a cage. She was a gobby, boxing Geordie with much to say and little to impart. She insisted on putting litres of Tabasco sauce on all of her meals, then complained to Brian that his food left her in the toilet all night. She wouldn’t eat red meat because “it rots and purifies in the gut.”

She meant putrifies. Which is rather what’s been happening to Graham Norton since his big money move to the BBC. He was poached from Channel 4 because of his success as a chat show host who gets his researches to scan the internet for features to mildly embarrass his guests while he says oooooooooh to the audience.

The BBC scratched around for a format to match his talents, before coming to the conclusion three years later that he was best suited as a chat show host who gets his researches to scan the internet for features to mildly embarrass his guests while he says oooooooooh to the audience.

The first in this series of The Graham Norton Show (BBC2, 9pm) featured a not terribly funny Kevin Bacon and a Tony Curtis, funny only because of the plastic surgery.

It’s not to everyone’s taste but at least it’s something.

Monday, April 14

Review: Born Survivor - Bear Grylls

Bear Grylls' trek across the desert is about as credible as a date with a prostitute, says Mark Lewis

In his latest programme, we are asked to believe that Bear Grylls is a Born Survivor (Sunday, 8pm, Channel 4). But hang on! Isn’t the fact that that he was named Bear rather than, say, Ray a little unfair? Perhaps he wasn’t a born survivor after all. Perhaps he had survival thrust upon him

Being a Bear surely lends him a certain fierceness; a love of honey and a tired grumpiness in the winter months. Had he been called Dog Grylls we might expect a bit more truthfulness and spontaneity.

Alas Born Survivor is about as spontaneous as a crack at the world dominoes world record, and as honest as a human resources advisor. His trek across barren Saharan desert to the cool of the Atlas mountains has all the uncertainty of a proposition to a prostitute.

Even if you miss the disclaimer at the beginning of the programme telling you about the health and safety support and dramatic set-ups in the show, the over-dramatisation would blow the whole charade apart anyway. The opening sequence in which Bear talks earnestly over theatrical music has more cod drama than an Icelandic soap opera.

He says things like, “having the right survival skills can mean the difference between life and death,” and “being stranded here is like being cooked alive. Only the toughest survive.”

And he proves it by making his way from the helicopter to the surface of the Sahara by parachute. The not-quite-so-tough camera crew and equipment presumably land in the helicopter shortly after.

And Bear keeps on happening upon things in the Sahara desert as if he has just stumbled on it. “I’ve been looking for something like this,” he says, pretending to stumble upon a dried up river. “These are incredibly rare,” he adds, almost as if he had deliberately taken his film crew and headed for it.

“Woah, there’s a cobra,” he says, spotting a cobra and taking a little jump back, before telling us in his voiceover that the snake has actually been specially bussed in so that he can show us how to deal with it.

And this, perhaps, is this biggest charade of them all. Every now and then, the programme pretends that it is a public service announcement. Bear advises us that conserving water is paramount. Rather than swallow it immediately, you should keep it in your mouth, to keep your throat and tongue hydrated. Narrating an hour’s worth of film and wasting enough water to jerry up a slick of quicksand is probably not part of the advice.

“Whenever you are in a survival situation it is critical to keep body and soul together,” he says, which means removing your shirt, flexing you muscles and doing yoga poses while the sun sets in the background. “When you’re stuck in this part of the Sahara desert, your only chance of survival is to head for the Atlas Mountains,” we are told earnestly to the sound of millions at home jotting it down in their diary next to advice about looking left and right at road crossings.

With Ray Mears there is at least a vague sense that when he munches on a berry or rubs a couple of sticks together, he believes he is imparting something vaguely useful. And there’s the rub. It doesn’t matter how many times he pisses on his t-shirt and wraps it around his head, how many scorpions he eats for breakfast, or how many times he is filmed with his shirt blowing in the wind atop a Moroccan sand dune, Bear Grylls still just a thin Ray Mears.

He might look better with his shirt off, but the manufactured scenarios and camp dramatisations are just tics and affectations which detract from any substance, and appeal only to people whose favourite book is Bravo Two Zero.

Far from public service, this is entertainment for the moronic majority. As uncomfortable as making a programme in the desert no doubt is, the set-up here is faker than the applause for an Oscar winner, and even the programme makers know it. Desperate to sex up the safeness of the whole affair, Bear goes to great lengths to talk about how dangerous it all still is. Two of the film crew are evacuated during the programme with heatstroke, we are told - left wondering whether it is the poor suckers who are made to carry the heavy cameras while Bear looks handsome in the desert breeze.

The real calamity is that there might be a worthwhile programme in here somewhere. Even if his face betrays an I’m A Celebrity grossness when he does it, Bear, like Ray, is quite prepared to eat all kinds of horrible creepy crawlies just to keep us entertained.

The only question is this: had he been called Panda rather than Bear when he was handed a poisonous spider, would he have stuck it in his mouth, or ineffectually tried to mate with it?

Tuesday, April 1

Reviews: Tonight: Killer Lorries, Panorama: Jersey - Island of Secrets, Eastenders

ITV's flagship current affairs programme is less inviting than a truck driver's passenger seat, says Mark Lewis

There surely isn’t a more sympathetic group of people in this country than UK lorry drivers. They helpfully keep our speed in check by passing each other at 56 and 57mph on two-lane motorways. They keep us entertained in service stations by writing hilarious racist banter on the walls of the toilet cubicles. And they keep our emotions in check by selflessly blockading fuel pumps preventing us from meeting up with our new girlfriends in Bournemouth in the year 2000.

‘This month’s Budget brought no relief for British truckers,’ said the voiceover in Tonight – Killer Lorries (Monday, 8pm ITV1) tugging at the compassionate threads of our weeping hearts like a master puppeteer.

Worst of all, the threat to these burly champions didn’t come just from a callous Government. It also came from foreigners. And let’s not forget: Quite apart from driving on our roads in their foreign trucks; these feverishly breeding foreigners bloat our population almost as quickly as our lorry drivers can keep it in check my murdering hitchhikers.

And the evil of foreigners doesn’t end there. Some of them can’t even speak English. “You vehicle no drive,” said a Kent policeman to a foreign truck driver who spoke perfectly good English. “Get tyre replaced. You responsibility not mine.”

And then just when you thought the programme couldn’t get any more lightweight, they rolled out Quentin Wilson. “What are the worst breaches you’ve seen?” he asked a UK truck driver.

Then: “What do these guys get up to?” Wilson was never Jeremy Paxman but neither was he quite so Alan Partridge. He used, at least, to be the sidekick to Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. But in last night’s Tonight, he was reduced to showing us how dangerous left-hand drive (read: foreign) articulated lorries were, by driving one whilst saying, ‘it looks like I’m in control but I’m not. This is really scary. I’ve driven most things but this really freaks me out.”

No wonder he doesn’t do Top gear anymore. It’s not easy to see Richard “nearly-died-in-rocket-propelled-car-accident” Hammond being quite so easily perturbed. Neither did this faux-serious documentary even have any of the delicate sensitivity and moderation for which Clarkson and Top Gear are so famous.

“Foreign drivers are four times more likely to be tired than UK drivers, according to the police,” said Wilson. They are also nine times more likely to be homosexual, 16 times more likely to be paedophiles, and 140 times more likely to be responsible for the death of Princess Diana*.

Yes, foreign trucks are often un-roadworthy, the drivers are often tired, and there were 44 deaths associated with accidents involving overseas truck drivers in 2006. But this was simple tabloid foreign bashing at its most basic. The half-hour format of any documentary programme lends its subject very little credibility, and Tonight is more lightweight than a boxing match with Mr Muscle.

The teaser for next week’s Tonight told us people were prepared to lie to get jobs. The programme is going to set up a panel of judges to see if they can tell which of three candidates in a mock interview is lying. It will be hosted by Ian Wright with voiceover commentary from Harry Hill.

In reformatting to half-hour, Panorama (BBC1, 8.30pm) suffers from the same inherent credibility deficit. But last night’s programme, Jersey – island of Secrets, was a typically well researched documentary with lot of new information about the horrors of the Jersey children’s home, Haute de la Garenne, the inability of the Jersey authorities to govern themselves, and the probable cover up across the whole Island of an abuse scandal which last at least 40 years.

The comparison between the flagship current affairs documentary programmes on the two most popular free to air TV channels says a lot about the problems facing ITV. But as difficult as Panorama was to watch, at half hour it simply wasn’t long enough.

That’s not a criticism you can level at Eastenders (BBC1, 8pm), which has been trailing the return of Ricky and Bianca for the last few weeks like it was the biggest televisual event since the queen’s coronation in 1953. Had the queen then captained the English football team to World Cup success. On September 11.

The message here is that if you give something enough of a build-up then you can bring back anyone. Ricky was the first to return, approaching Pat with a glumness even more pronounced than usual. The credits were about to roll, so Pat knew something was up. ‘Something’s happened to Frank hasn’t it? What’s happened to Frank…’

Good luck bringing him back.

*research by the Daily Express xenophobe office of inaccurate statistics