Tuesday 06 October 1998
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
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 3 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove