Television Review

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the complications of docu-soaps is that the participants now know how to behave in them. You watch them doing their jobs while also trying to play characters in the TV programme. It may often look like harmless showing off, but there's often something more coolly calculating at work. They've seen Trude Mostue of Vets in Practice, Emma Boundy of Lakesiders, Maureen Rees of Driving School and Jane McDonald of The Cruise build lucrative spin-off careers. But even if no place beckons in the album charts or bestsellers' lists, there's always the performance-related bonus. However hapless or incompetent commercial enterprises appear to be in docu-soaps, they are still able to use the exposure as a gigantic free advertisement (and on the BBC, too!). If employees play up to the cameras, ratings will go up and so will takings.

In part one of Health Farm (BBC1), Forest Mere in Surrey was in the throes of a massive facelift and, more than any previous host to the BBC's prying eye, was doubtless grateful for the publicity. Needless to say, the staff displayed precisely those foibles that go against a health farm's clean- living philosophy. There was the general manager with his joints and doughnuts, the aerobics instructor with his beer and fags. When the owner of Forest Mere wanted to test some beauticians, she enlisted three sizeable builders as guinea pigs.

Individuals aside, the dull routine of the docu-soap is now rigidly established. If there's building work to be done, it will be portrayed as a catastrophe. "The pressure is on," said Lesley Joseph's amused voiceover, "but things aren't going to plan." It was all I could do to stop myself going out and stoning a couple of crows. Even the man from BT seemed to be on-message: asked to install 16 phone lines, he installed 16 phones. In a row. A fiver says the director discreetly encouraged him to cock it up for the public's better entertainment.

So when the fire alarm went off on the big day, you just knew it would be a false alarm, because the whole programme was a false alarm. These are Darwinian times for docu-soaps, and desperate measures are required to buy the viewers' allegiance. Health Farm marks the first instance I'm aware of where a docu-soap has deployed nudity as a perk for the loyal viewer. Four people were asked to "test the new mudbath", a see-through euphemism for giving the couch potatoes an eyeful. As the camera zoomed in on two women rubbing mud into their breasts in a way you'd never do if you were actually staying at a health farm, I quietly issued a memo to self: watching Health Farm is bad for your health. They should have called it Unfunny Farm.

If only the natural world were as sensitive to the viewer's requirements as docu-soap characters. Wild Tales (C4) belonged to that swelling sub- genre of natural history programmes in which the star never shows up. See also an entire series, just finished, of The X Creatures. The shy subject of "Sea Monsters" was the giant squid, which can grow to 60 feet in length. It has the biggest eye in the animal kingdom, so presumably it can see a television crew coming long before they see it. It has never yet been photographed, and wasn't about to break the habit of a lifetime just because Channel 4 had hired John Shrapnel to do one of his thrilling, menacing voiceovers.

The giant squid is preyed on by the sperm whale, which itself has the biggest nose in the animal kingdom and a possible related tendency to react like a docu-soap star at the sight of a camera. Some top squid biologists managed to attach a "crittercam" to a sperm whale, in the hope that it would go chomp some squid. The pictures the camera brought back of whales 1,000 feet underwater may have been of huge value to the experts, but there's only so much gloss you can put on a scientific study in which you set out knowing little about your subject and fetch up knowing not much more.

The film left you with John Steinbeck's aphorism that "an ocean without nameless creatures would be like sleep without dreams", plus a prediction that the crittercam may one day snare a giant squid. But, as any scuba diver will tell you, don't hold your breath.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away