Review

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The Independent Culture
"In a nutshell," asked Pete McCarthy in Desperately Seeking Something (C4), "what are you trying to achieve?" The question was put last week to a gaggle of Cornish cabbalists and it would be hard to think of a more appropriate container for their answer. He listened politely as a woman dressed in white robes explained something about crystals, astral planes and discarnate masters and you realised the first reason why a stand- up comedian had been hired to present this magical mystery tour of the arcane and occult - everything he encountered was likely to be a joke. (By some malign fluence I watched last week's episode in the belief that it was this week's - but I imagine the general principles will hold for all episodes.)

In that programme he also met a suburban shaman, a woman who blindfolded herself with green felt and set about some soul repair. "It's like taking an electric socket and a plug and putting them together," she explained, with a gentle smile that suggested she was explaining something to a retarded child. Then she made McCarthy lie down while she sang an improvised song over his head: "And a wolf comes to the clearing... ooohhhh wolf what are you doing here, who are you? It has come to a place in the pathway where a stone gargoyle sits, and it sports a wonderful bow tie." At this point, as the camera cut away to McCarthy's miraculously impassive features, you realised the second reason why a stand-up comedian had been employed for this job. Only a hardened professional would be able to keep a straight face under such conditions. "Pete, your wolf wants to come home to you," said the shaman, "May I blow him in?" McCarthy looked rattled. He was probably wondering what orifice she was planning to use.

In part two, he went off into the woods with Druids - more white robes, more lying down and more improvised dirges. "We bring you friendship, we bring you seeking," chanted a man with a long beard before sending McCarthy off into the birch trees for an assignation with the bard ("It is through the bard that we access the child that sings," said another druid, which went some way to explaining why the songs are always so bad). And it was at this point that the third, most depressing explanation for McCarthy's presence occurred to you. He was there because he wanted to be, because he was genuinely giving this spiritual kitsch his best shot. He seemed to confirm this in the final scene of last week's programme, a "manifestation" in which a self-styled "healer" made oil appear on his outstretched hands. McCarthy sniffed at his fingers wonderingly, as if persuading himself that a miracle had taken place - even though the healer had dictated exactly where the camera was placed and ensured that the room itself was dimly lit. "Make of it what you will," McCarthy had said before you were shown this insulting conjuring trick, as if detachment were a perfectly respectable position to adopt. But to be even-minded about such incidents is to be feeble-minded, to grant ignorance equal status with knowledge. "What people are hungry for is proof that they are not just some poor little piece of bio-chemistry that's going to live, die and be forgotten," said the healer, describing the emotions on which he trades with a surprising candour. Human vanity and human terror - just add gullibility and you can have a cult of your very own.

King Girl (BBC2) a tale of bullying, left you feeling pretty much bullied yourself, obliged to watch solely because your conscience would duff you up if you didn't. This is reality, you thought, as some fresh emotional horror was added to the growing pile, I'm not allowed to look away. In my case, the worm finally turned: I could take the casual abuse which had brutalised the eponymous character, I could take the mental torture of a grieving classmate, I could even take the suicide of the prostitute mother - but I couldn't take the fact that she sang a child's lullaby in a faltering voice as she swallowed the pills. That wasn't an unblinking vision of things as they are, it was arm-twisting for the hell of it.

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