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The Independent Culture
Thomas Sutcliffe

As he was leaving North Korea, Andy Kershaw, who delivered an enjoyably tongue-in-cheek report on the republic's dubious pleasures for Travelog (C4), was accosted by a senior government official. In the past, he would have had his video tapes confiscated and spent the next 48 hours "confessing" that he was an accomplice of the Aggressor Hyenas of American Capitalism. On this occasion the tone was more plaintive: "Please," begged the official, "tell your country Korea is opening its doors".

On the evidence of the preceding 30 minutes, the immigration officials are unlikely to be knocked over in the rush. Korea is one of those countries that actually looks like an architect's model - uncluttered, pristine and unnervingly sterile. Kershaw, a connoisseur of unbeaten tracks and global backyards, a man you naturally associate with coffee-tin guitars and loose goats, found himself at the heart of an oriental Legoland, a country in which contentment is measured in tons of concrete poured and in which the citizens are treated like interchangeable bricks. Even Kershaw's famously open-minded musical tastes had been defeated by what passed for the local culture. In a land where the top 10 hits include "Song of Industrial Rehabilitation for Nation Building" and "I Love an Unmarried Disabled Soldier", it was barely worth getting out the tape- recorder.

Out in the streets, the locals were doing mass callisthenics, limbering up for the spontaneous outbursts of affection for the Dear Leader, which accompanied Kershaw's tour-bus wherever it went. They looked happy enough - in the way of synchronised swimmers and ballroom dancers, eyes flickering to see whether the judges are looking their way. Even so the people were a relief, given that the tour itinerary otherwise consisted solely of Korea's recent industrial achievements - a model cement factory, an immaculate motorway service station (surreally devoid of cars) and an immense tidal barrage. "You really can't beat a major maritime engineering achievement for a good day out, in my book," said Kershaw, before exploring the souvenir shop, whose sole stock consisted of plastic washing-up bowls and videos in which the Dear Leader pointed knowledgeably at blueprints, passing on his peerless expertise in ferro- concrete construction techniques. Mostly, Kershaw made up for the dismal absence of local colour with drily ironic enthusiasm, but he couldn't maintain his detachment throughout. "Bloody hell!" he repeated wonderingly, staring down from a high building at a living carpet of citizens practising for the Dear Leader's birthday, individuals turned into mere pixels of obedient pigment.

The society depicted in Hollywood Men (ITV) almost made North Korea look attractive - somehow voluntary conformity is more depressing than the enforced kind. It is breathtaking, but true, that Carlton believe these programmes to be distinguished and innovative contributions to the documentary field. They aren't anything of the kind, being almost clinically devoid of novelty or risk. Even so, there's no denying the fascination of the subject matter - the weird amorphous life-forms created by the crushing pressures of ambition. Apart from a sprinkling of celebrities, most of those who appeared in Vanity and Vulgarity were Hollywood Hyphens - actor-limo driver, actor-stripper, actor-professional surfer - all convinced that success was just one operation away. Some of this was quite funny - in particular a parade of the worst wigs in the Western world.

But the laughter quickly soured - just how desperate do you have to be to countenance shaving behind your ears because of repeated face-lifts? How low does your sense of self-worth have to descend before you contemplate having the fat sucked from your spare tyre and injected into your penis to add girth? Handsome young men with fragile looks talked of "maintenance of the product", as they primped and pumped at the gym. By North Korean standards, these men were as free as birds, and yet you knew you were looking at men in chains.

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