Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, Channel 4, Wednesday and Thursday
Watching people try Ecstasy live on air failed to answer the big question – what is Nigella on?
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Sunday 30 September 2012
Nearly 60 years after Aldous Huxley took half a gram of mescaline at home in Hollywood and recorded the effect upon him in The Doors of Perception, Channel 4 had a go with Ecstasy in a "ground-breaking study". Over two nights, they brought the full weight of neurophysiological science and televisual blather to bear on recording what happens to the human brain when we drop an E. "Half a million people use it every year," cried Jon Snow incredulously, "but nobody knows how it works!"
In Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, the 25 volunteers were invited to a hospital, given 83mg of MDMA and bunged in an MRI scanner, which measures brain activity. They were also invited to describe the experience. On hand to comment were Val Curran, a professor of pharmapsychology who dreamed up the idea, and David Nutt, the pleasingly-named former czar of drug misuse, who was booted out of his government consultancy after saying that Ecstasy was safer than horse-riding. That all sounds pretty rigorous and scientific, doesn't it? In practice, it was undermined from the start by uncertainty of tone.
Jon Snow behaved as if he was fronting a jolly investigation into social behaviour. He was given a prop of a giant plastic brain, whose hemispheres he prised apart with an expression of goggling idiocy. The set displayed professors Nutt and Curran sitting on a box, their legs dangling childishly. An audience applauded after ad-breaks as if on a chat show, and the contributions of the volunteers brought me to a state close to druggy hysteria.
A priest assured Snow she'd volunteered "because it will be important to know about if ever I deal with drug-abusing and homeless people" (yes, love, we're sure it will). She recorded her woozy delight: "It feels like your body's melting … loads of happy memories … feelings of happiness." Did she feel spiritually renewed? "No," she said firmly. "I feel disconnected from God." A former Army bouncer, hoping to find therapy for "soldiers who have nightmares on coming home", had a bad experience. "I don't feel happy at all," he said, while high, "I feel very anxious". Next day he felt "appalling – like a hangover times 10". "You're an anomaly," sniffed Professor Curran, possibly meaning a spoilsport.
Lionel Shriver, the novelist, took part apparently because she was tired of being seen as "a stern person. I think anything that breaks down perceptions of you is all to the good." She said she loved the way Ecstasy lets you retain "the whole palette of vocabulary," but didn't use a vast amount: "I feel … light. It's pleasant. There's a nice openness. The colours are lush and vivid."
When Huxley handed in The Doors of Perception, his publisher said: "You are the most articulate guinea pig that any scientist could hope to engage." If only Channel 4 had fielded a Huxley, this ill-conceived show might have got somewhere. The science explained only that Ecstasy increased "activity" in the cerebral and visual cortices, bringing vivid memories; it didn't seem terribly ground-breaking. And although they wheeled on a Professor Andy Parrott at the end, to explain that Ecstasy could bring anxiety, depression and memory loss, the whole show suggested that, provided you use the pure stuff, E is a treat. I look forward to the response when they do The Heroin Trial.
What is Nigella Lawson on? In her new series, Nigellissima, she claimed to regard Italy as "my gastronomic and spiritual home", based on having worked in Florence as a chambermaid when she was a teenager. I believe her passion for Italy, just as I'll believe her passion for Turkish or Bengali cuisine when she's on her 22nd or 33rd series – anything, as long as it brings out her full repertoire of seductive enthusiasm, her curvaceous sentences ("Then just leave it to rest in its post-hoc marinade …"), her whole knicker-drawer of pert glances and confiding nods. The food hardly matters any more (she showed us how to make tagliata, or Tuscan steak '*' chips) as much as the atmosphere that surrounds her. She's filmed in a deep focus, so that everything in the foreground is blurred except her face. Whereas earlier series featured a crew of bourgeois chums, she's now surrounded by children, enjoying al fresco lunches, all soft focus with bubbles blown in the air. It's a modernday fairytale ("I'm a princess in a castle today, with my gold cutlery") which soothes and caresses and means nothing: TV Ecstasy.
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