It continued last night with advice on prostrate trouble and a Horizon (BBC2) programme about falling sperm counts which subtly modified the message to "we're all doomed". The information films are nicely done - even if the oafish rhetoric sometimes becomes a little tiresome ("Finding out that something is wrong is literally a piece of piss," said James Bolam, explaining that a faltering water pressure may indicate prostrate difficulties). Judging from the images used, the target audience is assumed to comprise of oily-fingered football fans, with a can of lager in one hand and a car-maintenance magazine in the other - the sort of men, in short, who will not even lift their heads to take in a statistic about male cardiac health, but might be seduced into attention by a picture of a corroded carburettor. Some of these are wittily done - three little Subbuteo figures clutching their crotches were used to accompany advice on testicular examination - but you have to wonder, at times, if they really capture the diverse nature of the BBC2 male audience.
Horizon broadened the anxiety assault to include everyone watching, though it began with a specifically male fret - falling sperm counts. It is a little difficult to establish exactly how widespread and how serious this is, an uncertainty compounded by a certain lack of rigour about the evidence Horizon put forward. The most striking image, for example, was the contrast between film of a sperm sample taken from a man in the Fifties (Stockwell Lido on a blazing bank holiday) and that of a "typical" sperm sample taken in the Seventies (Stockwell Lido on a cold March morning). What you saw was a decimation (I was paranoid enough to do a rough count), but the man in the white coat was telling a less dramatic story: in the Fifties the "average" sperm count was 100 million per millilitre and in the Seventies it had fallen to 75 million (which still seemed some way off seminal bankruptcy). So were we to believe our eyes or our ears, or neither?
Even so, what followed was unnerving - a suggestion that oestrogenic chemicals may be sterilising the planet. At first glance, this may not look like the worst of problems - it is difficult to hold a dread of over-population and a dread of falling birth-rates as compatible terrors. But Horizon made it clear that the chemicals are so widespread as to be virtually uncontrollable, and there is evidence that they may also be responsible for the increase in testicular and breast cancers, as well as deformations in animals. Human fertility may be amenable to technological assistance but fish and alligators aren't.
The programme itself was a text-book example of the genre requirements of science narrative, from the opening promise of "remarkable new evidence", complete with serendipity ("a scientist working in the very different field of breast cancer had accidentally stumbled on a completely new group of oestrogenic compounds") and the slow diffusion of knowledge ("the news that bisphenol A could leach from plastics reached Granada Dental School"). These are the dramatic cliches of popular science - a story of long nights in the laboratory, the worm of doubt growing to a serpent. Far better those cliches, though, than the one habitually reached for by Government agencies when such alarms are raised: "No immediate cause for concern". Horizon's thought-provoking film suggested otherwise.Reuse content