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Television Review

IT'S WEIRD TO think that the root of the word "documentary" comes from the Latin "docere", "to teach". But what do documentaries actually teach us? Consider last night's Cutting Edge (C4), "Mummy's Boy". The programme - presumably designed as a companion-piece to the defunct "Daddy's Girl" - worked on the thesis that, roughly, mothers and sons can sometimes have quite intense relationships, and sometimes they get along and sometimes they don't. This highly controversial view was illustrated through the experience of three mothers: Deborah, who was driven to despair by 16- year-old Derek's rebellious tendencies (though she still thought he was "a lovely lad. And a handsome one, too"); Ranna, who spent her time winding up 20-year-old Simeon and then teasing him about his temper; and Marion, whose son Daniel helped to do her hair and took her along to a gay disco.

I suppose these were meant to represent three different types of mother- son relationships; but they were more interestingly regarded as three different approaches to being filmed. Deborah and Derek were "ordinary people", seemingly natural and easy in front of the cameras. Marion and Daniel were "old troupers", obligingly staging the trip to the disco for the benefit of the film-crew. Ranna and Simeon performed a kind of Oedipal version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Ranna saw television as a weapon, a means of inflicting public embarrassment in the privacy of her own home - the programme's most amusing scene had her offering to scratch Simeon's back the way he liked it, fondling his arm while he squirmed and snapped at the unwanted intimacy. It seemed like an effective tactic, but if you really want to use TV as a weapon, then dropping one on somebody's foot doesn't get people staring at you in bus queues the next day.

In Robert Hughes's book, Culture of Complaint - a nippy assault on modern America - he recoils at the horrors of the confessional talk-show ("Transvestites Who Live with Their Mothers", "People Who Eat Their Feet" - apparently this was a real topic tackled by Oprah). He quotes James Robert Parish, a Californian journalist who has made a study of the genre and who fears that the "blurt-talks" will move from the studio to the home: "The next step will be, `Can we have our cameras there when you invite your daughter over to discuss why you threw her out?'."

Confessional chat-shows have never had the same impact on British television as they have in America, and watching The Vanessa Show (BBC1) or Trisha (ITV) it is clear that, next to the Americans, we are still amateurs in the art of public prying. People in Britain are, by and large, uncomfortable exposing themselves in front of 100 strangers, and chat-show hosts are uncomfortable asking them to do it. But, in the privacy of their own homes, people are happy to rip off everything for the camera, even suggesting new poses and exotic props to liven up the picture.

Parish is wrong to think of the home confessional as the next stage of development after the studio confessional, but surely he's right to think that it is closely related. "Mummy's Boys" would have been a natural topic for Vanessa, while yesterday morning's subject on Leeza (C5), "Mothers on Death Row", would slip effortlessly into the Cutting Edge format.

But isn't it interesting that Parish assumes that going into people's homes is even more degrading, more voyeuristic than choreographing confrontations in the studio? Meanwhile, over here, makers of documentaries like "Mummy's Boy" have managed to cling to the belief that they are doing something worthwhile and respectable. When they take the cameras into people's houses, they are showing the extraordinariness of ordinary life, exploring questions of individual morality and whether society has a right to pass judgement, that sort of thing. To compare them with a loud, blonde bird in a pink suit shrieking at her studio audience - well, that would be downright insulting.

And to a large extent, critics endorse this delusion: docu-soaps and fly-on-the-walls may get jeered at and complained about, but at least they get reviewed, while Vanessa and the rest of the daytime mob are ignored. The truth is, though, that the only insights to be gained from "real-life" documentaries concern how far people are prepared to go in front of a camera.