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A freak show (and no fakes)

Fake guests on Vanessa may be the lowest British television has gone so far. But it could get worse. Ms Feltz's Brazilian equivalent, known as Ratinho, "the Little Rat", is a lesson in how much further we could yet fall.

Like Vanessa Feltz he is a home-grown Jerry Springer, but his talk shows make Springer's look like Blue Peter. Take his popular "Deformity of the Week" feature, or his "pregnant" male guest, or the woman with the gouged- out eyes, not to mention the horribly twisted "Elephant Boy".

Ratinho, real name Carlos Massa, is far from little. He's a bulky man of 43, with a beer belly bulging over his waistband, but there is a distinctly rat-like expression in the eyes above his thick, black moustache. And he tends to spit saliva on to the camera lens when he gets worked up. Which he often does, brandishing a truncheon wildly for extra effect.

Massa's nightly offering is a distinctly Brazilian version of the talk show, catering to the uneducated masses, stirring them up against corrupt politicians, the wealthy or the intellectuals while, in turn, selling downmarket products that sponsor the show. He can move from a tear-jerking item about a woman whose hand was chewed off by an Alsatian to introduce a juggling act or a popular band.

To ensure that he maintains the audience's attention, he uses a Little Rat puppet in a booth by the side of the stage, who either acts as a straight man or repeats his comments in a squeaky, cartoon voice. The puppet also batters a miniature truncheon on the booth, like Sooty on a bad trip.

Massa, a former shoe-shine boy and circus clown, decided that he wanted to help the poor and disenfranchised in Brazil by running for congress. But he found he could get little done amid the country's bureaucracy. So he opted for TV. He made his name at the upstart channel TV Record, but after he began logging ratings of more than a third of all Brazilian viewers - often ahead of rival programmes on the nightly O Globo network, the world's fourth-largest - he was snapped up last autumn by Globo's rival, SBT Sistema Brasleiro de Televisao. The latter reportedly paid TV Record $40m to get him out of a long-term contract, and he's said to be paid about $4m a year.

On-stage fights are encouraged. The audience often joins in, as do stagehands and, on occasion, the presenter himself, truncheon and all. Ratinho will then turn to some theme - often government corruption, police violence or neglect of the poor by hospitals - working himself up to a frenzy while pacing the stage liked a caged lion.

The audience, mainly poor people unused to getting a fair hearing for their grievances, yell with delight. And their attention span is rarely tested. The "pregnant man" - surprise, surprise - turned out to be an overweight hoaxer. Massa said later that the man had been mentally unstable, but that the programme was paying for his treatment and so there was "no harm done".

After he launched his "Deformity of the Week" feature, turning the programme into a freak show, there were calls for the programme to be banned, but it is still winning higher ratings than football.

In case anyone should accuse him of insensitivity, the "Elephant Boy" was not shown directly to the cameras. All viewers could see was a heavy- breathing silhouette of a little boy with a trunk instead of a nose.

Ratinho's popularity attracts major advertisers including Coca-Cola, but the big companies avoid appearing as sponsors during the show itself. Massa can walk across the stage, after a slot showing a baby with a mass of pubic hair, to a stand where he personally advertises ballpoint pens and domestic appliances.

Seeing their ratings follow him to his new channel, TV Record came up with an antidote - another big man, Gilberto Barros. Known as Leao Livre, "the Free Lion", he has been described as "a Ratinho clone gone horribly wrong", a man with a quieter, more condescending tone.

The Lion's success? A boy who had half a face and had been castrated as a child. Barros asked the boy to bare his private parts to the camera, and the audience was treated to a close-up on a giant screen.

Well, at least that's one way of making sure the guests aren't fake.

Phil Davison