The Critics: Television: A docusoap worthy of the hard cell
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 21 March 1999
At New Hall - which sounds as if it should be an Oxbridge college, perhaps with its own University Challenge team, but is in fact a women's prison in West Yorkshire - arriving convicts are offered the chance to phone a friend. In the documentary soap Jailbirds (BBC1) we listened in as Melissa phoned her mum, and begged her to tell her she loved her. She wouldn't. Melissa is only 17. "F---ing bitch," she said, slamming the phone down.
I really can't see Melissa from Jailbirds following in the footsteps of Maureen from Driving School, or Jane from The Cruise, or Eileen from Hotel, and becoming an icon. On the other hand, we should never underestimate television's capacity for gorging on itself. Maureen thought she'd had her 15 minutes of fame, but then along came another 30, when Michael Aspel surprised her with his big red book on This Is Your Life. Moreover, it is only a matter of time before someone on Stars In Their Eyes says "tonight Matthew, I'm going to be Jane McDonald from The Cruise." Bearing in mind this cultural cannibalism, maybe television will make Melissa a star after all. Every docusoap needs a star. And she'd be great on Jim Davidson's Generation Game, showing the contestants how to sew mailbags, or where to keep their phone cards in the shower.
Jailbirds is produced and directed by Chris Terrill, who brought us The Cruise and Jane McDonald. In some respects he is a victim of his own success, because inexpensive programmes delivering sizeable audiences amount to television's Holy Grail. Indeed, docusoaps have started to make TV executives sound eerily like budgerigars. "Cheap, cheap, cheap," they cry, commissioning another seven or eight dozen. A year or so ago, someone high up at the BBC announced that he was putting an end to the docusoap boom, but evidently it was easier said than done. Still they continue to pour from television's every orifice, with the unfortunate result that the good ones get mixed up with the mediocre and the plain feeble.
Jailbirds, as it happens, is one of the very best. It is directed and edited with great skill, and it has chosen its territory wisely. The success of the docusoap has encouraged some programme-makers to think that all they have to do is point the camera at a bus station or a works canteen and an audience of 12 million, or better still a Bafta nomination, will inevitably follow. Not so. Not any longer anyway. But a women's prison, filmed with insight and sensitivity, is an excellent subject. Googie Withers would be proud.
Also, Jailbirds does not make the common mistake of introducing too many characters too early. So far, it has focused on just three convicts. One is Melissa. Another is Ivy, an amiable great-grandmother from Nottingham, banged up for credit-card fraud. And the other is Toni, who - rather conveniently for Terrill, it has to be said - tried to hang herself soon after her incarceration. Toni is a 28-year-old heroin addict, and in programme one she made an impressive, impassioned speech, evocative of Spencer Tracy in Twelve Angry Men, and even of Deirdre Rachid in Coronation Street. Toni explained why a prison sentence would not help her. "I need rehab, I need counselling to stay off drugs," she said. "If I thought for a minute I was going to get rehab in here, I'd gladly do my time."
After 10 weeks, Toni, a lesbian, had acquired a steady girlfriend and settled in nicely at New Hall. But on day one, it was easy to see why she was depressed. She refused to wear the prison-issue knickers, and no wonder, for they were less Miss Selfridge than Mrs Slocombe. She even had to surrender information about her bottom. "Red devil right buttock, angel left buttock," she said, with the ghost of a smile.
If Pat had been asked to describe her tattoos on checking in at Hedonism II, she would barely have got down to her belly-button by checking-out time. We met Pat in Pleasure Island (ITV), a docusoap as cynical and superficial as Jailbirds is worthy and insightful. It follows a motley assortment of British tourists to the Hedonism II resort in Jamaica, where everyone is encouraged to go starkers. This is not remotely titillating, partly on account of Hedonism II being a kind of Club 18-stone- to-30-stone. We met Kim and Paul from Hemel Hempstead. Kim wants to marry Paul, but Paul isn't sure. Kim says her whole family is behind her. But when she stripped off for an erotic dancing session, she appeared to have several families behind her. Jamaica? No, she quite inexplicably did it of her own accord.
Then there was Maggie, a shy cat-lover from Nottingham, who braved Hedonism II on her own. Luckily, she bumped into extrovert American Pat, whom she knew from a previous visit. Pat had arrived for body art week, "a celebration of piercing and tattooing". She showed us a portrait of her father, who died when she was 12, but lives on both in her memory and underneath her right breast. "I really am a walking Monet," said Pat, proudly. The Royal Academy missed a trick there.
Pleasure Island exemplifies a growing trend in TV - to sidestep the regulators by presenting full-frontal and sometimes pre-watershed nudity as part of above-board documentaries about naturism. Naturist resorts have long doubled as peep-shows - at my all-boys' school, copies of Health & Efficiency magazine had a black-market value of at least 100 Bazooka Joes - but it's a bit pathetic all the same. Channel 5 is pubic enemy No.1, of course, but the others aren't far behind.
Still, it can be most reassuring to see real naked bodies wobbling and jiggling, if only to counter the effect of all that unreasonable tautness in TV drama. The tautest drama of all is Queer As Folk (Channel 4), which I'm bound to say has grown on me considerably. It is witty and engaging, but I wouldn't want to watch with Mother. The sex scenes would leave her - as, bless her, she is wont to say when gamely attempting to slip into the modern vernacular - "absolutely gobstopped".
Speaking of which, there was some exceedingly graphic fellatio last week, between Stuart and Nathan. Nathan is the 15-year-old schoolboy, the series' most controversial character but also its weakest link. For the young lad who plays Nathan, while great at simulating blow-jobs, can't act for toffee. Even more disconcertingly, he looks, in a certain light, uncannily like the young John Boy Walton. It will never again seem quite the same watching John Boy innocently thumbing a lift up Walton's Mountain. And with Queer As Folk's homosexual orgies in mind, the celebrated goodnight sequence in The Waltons now takes on an entirely fresh significance. "G'night Jim-Bob, g'night Ben, g'night Billy, Mark, Howard, Lawrence, Tom, Shane, Jeremy ..."
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