Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE PEOPLE we see on TV are so uniformly pretty that it is easy to take prettiness for granted. In real life, on a daily basis, we wade happily through a daily ocean of flab and acne and scurf, much of it our own, and we bond cheerfully with people who would look grotesque and out of place in a Mike Leigh film; but TV is a little oasis of slimness and clear skin. So it comes as a minor jolt when you watch a programme like Playing the Field (BBC1), Kay Mellor's drama about the members of a women's football team. I hope this doesn't sound as if I'm saying that the cast are ugly - most of them could, I imagine, look more than presentable if the part demanded it (I have my reservations about Ricky Tomlinson). But the women, in particular, are assertively ordinary in a way that most soap operas, for all their ostensible realism, would never dare to allow: they have scrubby haircuts, small, unmade-up eyes and shapeless clothes.

The most striking innovation, though, is the way that their average looks are not allowed to get in the way of their sex appeal. Last night's episode revolved around the temptations being dangled in front of Rita and Geraldine (Melanie Hill and Lorraine Ashbourne), neither of whom fits remotely into stereotypical ideas of female beauty. They both play married women, pursued by other men with something approaching desperation.

There's an important point being made here - not that ugly people get laid, too, but that what we count as ugly, and what we count as beautiful, is a far more complex business than television usually bothers to convey. Just how fluid our notions are is demonstrated by James Nesbitt, who plays Rita's husband. Perfectly credible as the desirable Irish eccentric in Cold Feet, here he makes a believable object of mild sexual derision. When a couple of the girls meet his wife's ex-husband (a snub-nosed character a good 15 years older), they are amazed that she should have traded down to her current model.

There are aspects of Playing the Field that are less realistic. If you stop and analyse it, it is a little odd that marital tension always gets expressed in the form of sex and shouting matches, rather than, say, shopping sprees and glum silences in front of the video. And I find it hard to stomach the triumphant-in-the-face- of-adversity theme tune ("Whatever will be will be, and we will be!"). But set it against most other "realistic" dramas, and it shows how fake they are.

More challenges to aesthetic stereotypes came in The Half Monty (C4), a portrait of a dwarf strip troupe. My first reaction was that this was simply a freak show. But for the strippers, it was plainly more subtle than that. For at least two of them, Philip and Ray, both enthusiastic body-builders, being small was a privilege, partly because it set them apart from the common herd, but also because, in purely practical terms, it had opened up unexpected opportunities. Ray would never have contemplated a life in the theatre if he hadn't been approached by a casting director in the street, and now he loved it. Even for Gee, who was the most resentful of the unwanted attention his height brought him - he and his (average-sized) fiancee, Ali, had given up public displays of affection because they were fed up with the staring - performing seemed to be a way of controlling people's reactions.

I suspect that things were more complex for the audience, too. The group's manager, listing their individual qualities, ended with the darkly chiselled Chris: "He's got some good looks, the women seem to go for him. All of them play well towards women." Watching the audience, whistling and laughing, it was hard to tell whether they would have reacted differently to a full-sized strip act. I would guess that embarrassment and pleasure at seeing male sexuality made mock of came into it, but I suppose it always does. They weren't campaigning to show that short men are real men but that seemed to be an effect of their act. And that surely can't be a bad thing.

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