Television Review

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The Independent Culture
STOP PRESS: football hooligans enjoy fighting, don't like black people! Workers in homes for mentally handicapped underpaid and unhappy, sometimes take frustration out on patients! Fashion industry exploits young girls!

In one sense, MacIntyre Undercover (BBC1) isn't telling us anything we didn't already know, or couldn't have worked out for ourselves - true, by getting all rigged up with hidden cameras and assumed personae, Donal MacIntyre can dig up a certain amount of specific dirt. But really, the undercover bit is a tactic, a way of grabbing the viewers' attention. What really fuels the programme, gives it its fire, is MacIntyre's own, uncovered personality and his sense of right and wrong.

Watching last night's edition, in which MacIntyre, disguised as a photographer, set out to expose the horrors of the fashion business, it became clear that he's not simply a decent bloke, but something of a puritan - which I mean as a sort of compliment. Of course, every investigative reporter is going to find himself having to make his excuses and leave once in a while - and MacIntyre's increasingly flustered excuses for not taking up offers of drugs and/or teenage girls formed a weirdly entertaining sub-plot here. But it was evident that, as he worked his way into the world of fashion, he found the shallowness and venality of it all increasingly distasteful.

He had adopted the name "Mac" (easily memorised, if not hugely imaginative), and his story was that he had just jetted in to London Fashion Week from the States, where he was working for a (fictitious) new magazine called Polka Dot: "I think it sounds ridiculous," he said, defensively, "but I'm told by people who know the industry that it will work." Shortly after, at an Alexander McQueen show, he talked about "staring at the clothes in disbelief". At a night-club in Milan, surrounded by drink, drugs and attractive young women, he explained in voiceover: "I'm slowly beginning to master the art of pretending to have a good time." He found himself joking with a couple of Italian men who were bragging about having sex with 14- and 15-year-old models; the commentary paused to reassure the viewer that he didn't mean it, he was just trying to make them think he was one of the boys.

What aroused his distaste was not simply the absurd clothes, or the fact that sordid men are trying to sleep with young women; it was the sense that teenage models are treated as a commodity by some in the fashion world.

One "PR" - the male hangers-on who Mac was getting to know - said that being a PR was "not just about having a lot of women. It's just getting in the position in which women for you are like money". A manager at an Italian model agency made the same point a little more apologetically: "We tend to consider girls now like not human. Sometimes I find myself treating them like goods to sell."

In a way, this was the same problem MacIntyre described in last week's distressing programme, in which he became a carer in a privately run home for the mentally handicapped, and observed first hand the tedium and habitual mild sadism that inmates suffered. In both cases, the business of making money had reduced people to objects, with little account taken of their emotional needs or happiness.

This humanist point is not easy to put across in the dramatic format that MacIntyre Undercover uses, with the jangly, out-of-focus photography, the melodramatic commentary, the regular reminders of the risk of being found out. (I think this was exaggerated in last night's programme: moving in a world where practically everybody was twitchy with chemical stimulants, any anomalies in his own behaviour must have looked like small beer.)

What gets the message over is MacIntyre, through the strength of his feelings and through his obvious charm. He's a big, good-looking bloke, with an easy smile, and it's been obvious in all three programmes so far that people don't just tolerate his presence, they actively want him to be their friend. In this case, visiting Moscow for the "Look of the Year" competition, he even found himself invited up on to the platform to join in with the judging. To a lesser extent, his charm does the same job on the viewer.

This reliance on MacIntyre himself must surely be the programme's undoing, though: after this, his face will be too recognisable for a second series. Still, it was fun while it lasted; and, really, something more serious than fun.

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