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.

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