Television review

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The Independent Culture
"Make your life a masterpiece!" urged Tony Robbins, a dentally dazzling guru featured at the beginning of In Search of Happiness (BBC1). "I would, I would," I said, "but my paintbrush is splayed and the colours have got muddy and I need a new canvas." No problem for Tony, for whom emotional overpainting is an essential rule of life. On screen you saw those attending "Awaken the Giant Within", one of his three-day seminars (pounds 429 plus VAT, and cheap at the price if it actually delivers). A selection of ordinary men and women were trying to wake the giant by grimacing and contorting to the sound of Michael Jackson's "Thriller". I can get that at home for nothing, I thought, though it's true that the elation disappears as soon as I blunder in front of a mirror.

Tony Robbins's disciples filed out into the Brummy night with broad smiles across their faces. So did Tony, I imagine, his particular version of the old snake-oil routine having secured him a palatial home in California, where he can practise what he preaches - taking pleasure in the simple things of life: the 200-ft lawn, the uninterrupted view of the Pacific, the thought of the resort he now owns in Fiji. Just be contented with what you've got, he says, a simple credo which has got him a lot to be contented with.

It was comforting to have Angus Deayton on hand for this - or at least his particular talent for mute scepticism. His best moments as presenter are less the words than the tiny flickers in that mask of respectful attention: the arch of an eyebrow when someone explains how they drilled a hole in their own skull to improve their mood; the little corrugation of the brow as a name consultant advises him to add an initial or two to his signature for an instant personality retune. (Others in the programme were simply out to lunch, but this man was taking his meals on another planet.)

Woven throughout In Search of Happiness (a very elegantly made mish-mash) was the story of Marshal Hunt, a genuinely cheerful-looking man from Bolton who had shifted his long-suffering family from location to location in the hope of finding contentment. The move to the Lake District worked for a while, until it dawned on Marshal that he had exchanged a cobble-stoned rut for a muddy one. Then emigration to Australia seemed to have done the trick, for six weeks anyway, until: "I got these doubts were creeping into me mind...". It wasn't very surprising to discover that Marshal ended up back in Bolton, a short car-ride from his starting point. He had never been happier, he said, but his wife looked more guarded: where next, she was thinking - Guatamala? Winnipeg?

If Marshal had seen Assignment: The Chanting Millions (BBC2), about Japan's Soka Gakkai cult, he would have realised that travel is unnecessary. All you need to make your life burn with a gem-like flame is to chant the same four-word phrase repeatedly ("nam yoho rengi kyo", if you want to get started right away). Millions of people do this, making Soka Gakkai one of the most powerful of the 231,000 religious groups currently registered in Japan. It is also very, very rich, as a result of a gentle but persistent squeeze on its members' wallets: "It needs to be advertised, like any good product," explained its founder, Daisaku Ikeda, when pressed by Julian Pettifer.

What Soka Gakkai looks like most is a mercenary form of Soviet communism, complete with the cheesy propaganda about the promotion of international peace and culture and the mass callisthenic displays which reduce individual humans to mere pixels. Even so Pettifer had a problem presenting it as truly menacing - dissidents, for obvious reasons, look much less contented than adherents, still purring with serene conviction. It was only in the closing moments, when Pettifer pointed out that Soka Gakkai stands a good chance of running the government after the next election, that he made you really unhappy.

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