Last Night's Television - Britain's Weirdest Phobias, ITV1; Tony Robinson and the Ghosts of Glastonbury, Channel 4; Shooting Stars: the Inside Story,BBC2; All New Shooting Stars, BBC2
Not just a funny turn
Wednesday 31 December 2008
Not all the phobias in last night's
Britain's Weirdest Phobias were all that weird. Many people will sympathise with the man who was afraid of locusts and praying mantises, or the woman who panicked at the sight of a frog and toad. A fear of cats is common enough to have its own word (ailurophobia) and the way the ailurophobe featured here described it ("They sit on walls and they look at you, ready to pounce"), it sounded entirely reasonable. Where do I sign? Her feelings about cats were echoed by the woman who was afraid of peas: "They tend to be looking at me and ganging up." I wondered how she copes with Brussels sprouts. Does their bulk make them more threatening than their tiny legume cousins, or does she see them as gentle giants?
Even the weirdest-sounding examples had their own internal logic. The star exhibit was Sue, from Birmingham, who was scared of knees – couldn't touch her own, certainly wouldn't touch any one else's, didn't like to see people touching their own knees and found it strange that they would ever want to. Kneecaps revolted her particularly, to the extent that she couldn't say the word, resorting to circumlocution: "The knee, the thing you wear on your head, the two together makes me physically sick." The phobia had its beginnings in childhood, like several others mentioned: the teenage boy who, on safari in Kenya as a three-year-old, had a banana snatched out of his hands by an invading baboon, leaving him with a lifelong terror of bananas (the obvious question – why not baboons? – was not asked); the middle-aged man whose fear of cobwebs originated in an afternoon in a filthy room. We never did find out what had happened to the woman with the fear of barns, or just how wide a spectrum of agricultural outbuildings she included, but I'm guessing something nasty in the woodshed. For Sue, it all went back to childhood knee problems. They would give way under her, or lock rigid; in the latter case, her father would unbend them by force, which was agony; and so, bit by bit, thinking about knees became distressing. Nick O'Dwyer's film included some close-up photography of knees at a swimming pool, and you had to admit Sue had a point.
She was visited by David Allison, who specialises in phobia therapies at Addenbrooke's hospital. He sat next to her on the sofa, knees jutting towards her, and started to leaf through some photographs he'd brought, all along murmuring reassurance. After a while, he ducked into the bedroom to change into cycling shorts. Now he started coaxing her to touch his bare knees – he stroked them, kneaded and fiddled with them. I think most people would, at this point, have screamed and run out of the room. But then Sue reached out and touched his knee, even lingeringly. By the end, she was resting her hand on her own knee and gabbling "kneecap, kneecap, kneecap" as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
This was all more entertaining than it should have been, but also frustrating. It didn't leave me with any clearer understanding of how phobias work, and I'd like to have heard more about some of the particular horrors. A fear of canoes was only mentioned in passing, and there was a lot more detail to be had about the lady terrified of midgets, dwarfs and tiny people in general. This one was played for laughs: a tiny man in green make-up wandered on behind her while O'Dwyer asked her about leprechauns. She was particularly unnerved by people of restricted growth in costume or make-up, Oompa-Loompas, Munchkins and the like. Christmas must be hard, what with pantos, and Elf on the TV. But how tragic to be cut off from an entire category of human being. She said herself that the worst part is them seeing you're upset. Again, I wondered about the boundaries. Are cartoon dwarfs all right, as in the Disney Snow White? And how far up the scale does she go? Tony Robinson, say, he's quite a little fella. Mind you, there are so many reasons to feel an irrational panic sweeping over you when he appears on television.
Tony Robinson and the Ghosts of Glastonbury was another exercise in credulity, him and Becky McCall doing their feeble Mulder and Scully act, this time over some simple-minded stuff about automatic writing and dead monk spirit guides offering archaeological advice. I wondered whether any of the academic institutions that have awarded Robinson honorary degrees for his services to archaeology might consider withdrawing them, or at least issuing statements dissociating themselves from this wilful stupidity.
While we're on the subject of wilful stupidity, BBC2 was celebrating the legacy of Shooting Stars, the Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer game show. Shooting Stars: the Inside Story was an engaging retrospective, which made it clear how much fun everybody had at the time (and wasn't Ulrika pretty?). It made me annoyed at not having watched it more regularly. But then along came All New Shooting Stars, a strained attempt to revive the fun, with everybody looking older and tireder, and a depressing sense that entertaining the audience came a long way down the list of priorities.
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