Television & radio: Don't give up your day jobs

The newest wave of docu-stars has nothing fresh to offer, says Tim Dowling. Frankly, they're boring

It's time to admit that docusoaps are out of control. In the beginning, there was an agreeably naive air about them, or at least about the way we watched them. They were like wildlife programmes about humans - a little bit artificial, but entertaining nonetheless. They weren't always enlightening, but if they refreshed our appreciation of ordinary folk, or neglected institutions, well where was the harm in that?

There was the cruise ship, the hotel and the airport, and those people who couldn't drive. It was simple fare, but soon became the national dish. Everybody watched them. Like the game show contestants of old, thrust into the limelight, the participants became stars. Thanks to those early successes, there are two or three docusoaps running in any given week, most of which retain only the mundaneness of real life.

Far from providing insight, The Estate Agents (ITV, Thurs) does no more than confirm every prejudice commonly held about that occupation, as rather- too-young men with ill-fitting suits and jellied hair charge around Bristol saying stupid things about houses and talking bubble-headed sales-speak. It doesn't do Bristol any favours either (the happiest moment last week came when a deal went sour and the disappointed buyers broke out champagne to celebrate staying in Chester). Actually, I hated every gold tap, the WCs on the half-landings, the spacious gardens, all the buyers and the sellers as well. Part of it is snobbishness, often the docusoap's big appeal, but it's also just the mood I was in after half-an-hour with these guys. It was like having something slimy rubbed on you. People who have had dealings with estate agents know that the horror lies not in brief encounters but in the cumulative effect of repeated exposure, like X-rays.

I think this programme put me over the edge. The modern docu-soap hybrid rarely bothers with fly-on-the-wall neutrality or anonymity. Most go for a ramshackle, homespun feel: subjects gabble away at the camera, joke with the crew and explain themselves in response to audible prodding from someone behind the lens. Thus you find yourself listening to an estate agent giving a long-winded answer to a question you didn't ask, which is, one must admit, just like real life. In The Shop (BBC1, Thurs), which trails around after the staff of Selfridges in Oxford Street, this MateyCam technique is used to full extent. As the menswear department prepares to open a new Ralph Lauren concession, someone has to be yanked aside to explain why everyone is in such a lather. Even then, it's often impossible to care. When Ralph Lauren's own-brand hangers don't arrive, and the shop has to use Selfridges hangers instead, Stewart from menswear is buttonholed to say: "It sounds quite trivial, but that's actually quite a major disaster." Uh-huh. Later, Stewart is asked about the Ralph Lauren Specialist Folding Team, which descends to bring the "Ralph Lauren Fold" to an off-message stack of jeans. Stewart says: "That's retail." In this fashion, in-jokes are laboriously illuminated, ambitions dissected and employment histories sketched in. The staff comply politely enough, but one is left with the impression of being on an impromptu guided tour. Where the subjects aren't directly hassled into emoting, there is still plenty of lightning repartee so typical of the docusoap, if not the workplace. This is for TV, so everybody has their witty hats on. The furniture sales associate and buyer barge through the department, insulting each other. Everyone has a go at being insubordinate. Despite a voice-over which talks about deadlines and sales targets, there is an overwhelming feeling that these people don't have enough to do.

The cameras are also back bothering the folks at Heathrow this week, in the third series of The Airport (BBC1, Sat), now one of the grey ladies of the genre. Jeremy Spake, the Aeroflot flight supervisor who became a star after the last series, is back as well, barely, thanks to congestion on the M25. No matter: the camera is there with him for the whole of his 118-mile commute from Colchester to Heathrow. "The journey itself is tedious," spake Jeremy somewhere near junction 27. I felt I was doing him a favour by keeping him company. A real fly on the wall would have been out the window at Chelmsford.

I remember Jeremy being charming in the last series, but now he seems to have taken on the world-weary petulance of a grown-up child star. It is unclear where he goes from here. I understand he's written a book.

Elsewhere at Heathrow, we watch some heavily-armed cops cart off a frightened American man who made a joke about a machine-gun in his violin case. We also get to disturb the concentration of Phil, the air- traffic controller, asking him what all that nonsense he's saying into his mouthpiece means. "He was northbound, heading south," says Phil, "and he hadn't allowed for the strong wind, so he's drifting very south of the traffic." Oh yeah? And what's this button do? Whoops!

At the current saturation level, it's not surprising that docusoaps are beginning to suffer overlap. I've seen a whole programme about passport control somewhere before, so The Airport's immigration officer seemed a bit redundant. The store detectives and sales people from The Shop aren't a lot different from those in the mall in Lakesiders, and the people moving house in The Estate Agents might as well be in Moving People. Cheeky sods like Jeremy now pop up everywhere, and there is an increasingly transparent publicity angle for institutions involved. I used to sympathise with people on docusoaps, but I'm starting to get compassion fatigue. Maybe it's time for everyone to go back to work.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect