Like some of those programmes, it bears with it a notional idea of sceptical inquiry, a modesty garment so gauzy and insubstantial that it cannot conceal the programme's real intention - to cash in on the public's indiscriminate gluttony for the irrational. In the case of the BBC programme, the intellectual posing pouch takes the form of Dr Richard Wiseman, a psychologist with an interest in paranormal belief. Dr Wiseman does not live up to his name, for he is being used here - both to conceal the idiocy of the programme and, paradoxically, to bolster the case of the credulous.
One wonders whether he can really be happy to find himself the pet scientist for a programme which is elsewhere consistently contemptuous of the profession. "Scientists believe they can explain it all," said the reporter inquiring into cases of spontaneous human combustion, "but can they?" No prizes for guessing the answer expected there. Later, Carole Vorderman (a power- dressed Mystic Meg without the crystal balls) introduced a feature on luck with the words "most scientists have dismissed this as an irrational belief not worthy of study," as if "scientists" could be taken as a ready shorthand for "narrow-minded bigots".
In any case, the deck is stacked against rational explanation - in the report on a couple who believe their Welsh farmhouse is haunted by an electricity-gobbling manifestation of pure evil, we were assured that the special-effect apparitions were an "accurate depiction" of what the couple claimed to have seen, an entirely spurious note of scholarship in light of the Hammer Horror frissons that followed. Though Wiseman made the obvious point: that these people had worked each other up into a self-regarding fit of the heebie-jeebies, his mild (and polite) demurrals only cast their utter conviction into sharper light. The camera, prowling around in the shrubbery, clearly believed every single word they said.
The real mystery is why people bother with such tawdry cliches when the real world is infinitely more varied and fascinating. The point was well made by Inside Story's film (BBC1) about the Dionne quintuplets, an astonishing account of sentimental hysteria, virtually every moment of which was recorded on newsreel archive. It was a story of well-intentioned cruelty, the five "miracle babies" wrenched from their family by the doctor who cared for them, and brought up in a nursery-cum-observatory which transformed the local economy. Motels, restaurants, souvenir shops and impromptu museums ("See the Dionne quins' original basket") sprang up in the small Canadian town of Callander, a bonanza of cutesy exploitation which cost the quins any chance of happy normality. By the age of two, they were earning $200,000 a year, through adverts and entry fees. Their birthdays were staged in advance for newsreel cameras, complete with fake cakes and empty presents - a poignant image for the hollow simulation of childhood they were required to act out.
Jane Treays is making something of a specialisation of exploited children (she also made the recent documentary about child beauty pageants) and is, I think, properly aware that her own camera cannot be entirely innocent. In any case, she included a long, searching look from one of the three survivors, a look which forced you to consider whether your own curiosity was really very different from those who went to gawp in the 1930s.Reuse content