Child abuse takes many forms but few can be quite as expensive as that depicted in last night's Under the Sun (BBC2), a jaw-dropping account of child beauty contests. It isn't easy to transform an ordinary five-year-old girl into a back-combed bump'n'grinder, eyes slick with mascara, pouting and puckering like some unholy paedophile honey-trap - in fact it costs a fortune to look this cheap. But for the mothers who press their children into the competitions, no price is too high to pay: $300 for a pre-competition make-over, up to $1000 for costumes, not to mention the countless hours of preparation and training. "Ah got a lotta miles on my vee-hickle," observed a contestant's mother, a woman literally twitching with competitive instinct.
Jane Treays's film followed the fortunes of two contestants - Brooke (named after Brooke Shields) and Asia (named after the celebrity continent), both headed for the highlight of the circuit, the Southern Charm Pageant in Atlanta. In this pre-teen dog show the trainers were after gold, the Champion of Champions award. Both thought that their little girls had it in them to deliver the "total package" the judges were looking for, even when their confidence rested on blind contradiction of the facts. Asia's mom's faith in her child's "talent for singing", for example, was completely unshaken by the fact that Asia sounded like a badly adjusted angle-grinder. Her version of "Sweet Nothings", complete with lascivious winks and shimmies, could serve cash-strapped hospitals as an effective, drug-free stomach pump.
Things got tenser as the competition approached. In a cheap hotel just off the freeway ("It looks like a waffle-house," observed Brooke, pertinently) hippo-butted women hustled their spangled infants through the preliminary rounds. The judges discussed make-up weight, anxious to keep things tasteful. "The only thing we want is that nothing is, lahk, indecent," murmured one, oblivious to the fact that this was as forlorn an ambition as asking mud-wrestlers to deliver "a good clean fight".
As the little girls went through their mechanical paces, Treays focused on maternal faces, rapt and flickering, as if they could operate their little dolls by facial remote control. Occasionally, an incredulous question would croak out from behind the camera but there was no hope of piercing the cloud of unknowing in which the parents had wrapped themself. Only Asia's grandmother offered anything like candour about why one would peddle one's own child like this - "She's got a real good shot," she said, "and grandma needs a new car." The others were more circumspect, spouting unconvincing bromides about confidence and education. But again and again they blithely condemned themselves. "Ah wuz pleased," beamed Brooke's mother after her performance in the Western section. "Ah thawt she looked lahk a little Barbie dawl. But then Ah'm partial." After Asia had been placed third, her mother, face set in anger, denounced the judges: "I don't think it's right for what they do to innocent kids," she spat before hauling Asia straight out on the road for the next competition.
The hobbies and obsessions depicted in Video Nation (BBC2) were far more innocent: George Formby songs, an immaculate pink Pontiac, surfing and Celtic battle re-enactment ("We met a good bunch of Romans, had a drink with them. But unfortunately they don't fight."). The spontaneity of the video diaries suffers a little in these themed packages, the gloss of structure and calculated edits reducing the rough charm of the originals, but some intimacy still survives. "Got to show you this," says one contributor, leaning out of shot for her riding hat. Another diarist (an ex-miner and something of a star in these compilations) chatters uninhibitedly about his love for his "lads", warm and garrulous and unabashed. What you were looking at was ordinary people at play, but they were hardly representative, as a final sly caption confessed. Far and away the most popular leisure activity in Britain is watching , not making it.Reuse content