Last Night's TV: Mary, Queen of Shops, BBC2: A Taste of My Life, BBC2: The Victorian Sex Explorer, Channel 4
Tuesday 10 June 2008
My latest book, The Pheasants' Revolt, received one rather brutal review, in The Independent on Sunday of all places (thanks, guys). The reviewer took strong exception to the "grotesque punning" title, so it is perhaps a little rich of me to pick on Mary, Queen of Shops, for the same reason. The pun calling the kettle black, if you like. But really. Mary, Queen of Shops? I can't remember wincing so much at the title of a television programme since Rosemary and Thyme, which starred Pam Ferris and Felicity Kendal as secateurs-wielding detectives called Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme, and which I refused to watch on principle.
Once you get past the title, however, Mary, Queen of Shops makes rewarding viewing. In it, the retail consultant Mary Portas descends on failing businesses, Gordon Ramsay-style, and advises the proprietor how to turn things round. The object of her attention last night was Blinkz, a boutique for "fuller-figured" women in Ascot, run by a woman whose warm-hearted empathy towards full- figured women evoked Ayatollah Khomeini's warm-hearted empathy towards Salman Rushdie. The first thing that Portas hated about Blinkz was its name (ha!), but all its problems thereafter were squeezed into the pert little frame of its owner, Amanda Collins.
Think of Mary Whitehouse running Playboy magazine and you have some idea of how unsuited Collins was to the job of serving the needs of size 16s and above. To her they were misshapes to be pitied or scorned, and Portas quickly recognised that a whole new stock wouldn't be enough; a whole new attitude was required. Trying to make Collins aware of this deficiency, she took her to Evans to learn how to make fleshier customers feel good about themselves (something Evans themselves are rather better at since ditching the cruel word outsize), and explained that her euphemisms for different-shaped women ("bullets", "bouncy castles", "no-hopers") would have to go, along with so-called fashion items that made the wardrobe of the late Hattie Jacques look like that of Mary Quant.
That's three celebrated Marys I've managed to mention so far and here's another: the one who was quite contrary. Initially, Collins seemed to think that Portas was ladling out the criticism just to be provocative for the camera. But if anything Portas was restrained, doing remarkably well not to use her helping hand to deliver a sharp slap; indeed, the idea that she could help turn Blinkz into a goldmine was actually slightly distressing, since Collins wasn't a woman who deserved to mine gold. We rather hoped, Mrs Viner (size 10, but formerly a size 14 and still mindful of the day she directed our six-year-old son to a suitcase to find his swimming trunks, only for him to come back holding an undergarment of hers, saying, with a cross little lisp, "I couldn't find my trunkth – all I could find were theeth gigantic panth") and I, that the credits might roll over a voice saying that "unfortunately, Amanda's shop continued to lose money, and is now a Chinese takeaway".
But that's never how these programmes unfold. Portas suggested a new name, The Fit (not brilliant, but definitely better than Blinkz, which sounded like a dodgy opticians), and showed Collins that clothes for larger women can actually be fashionable. The relaunch of the boutique was attended by la toute Ascot (it did rather seem as though Ascot is populated entirely by women on the more ample side) and the losses stemmed. Portas had done her job brilliantly. She even seemed to have turned Collins into a more empathetic human being, at least until Collins, asked what she had learnt, ran an imaginary zip across her mouth. Regrettably, she hadn't learnt that larger women are not "misshapen", she'd just learnt not to say so.
Taking my lead from Portas, I have delicately avoided using the word "fat", but of course not all larger women are sensitive about it. Take the admirable Jo Brand, as Nigel Slater did for his engagingly curious melange of a series, A Taste of My Life. Brand admitted that as a feminist gesture she had burnt her bra: "It heated a small village in Scotland for a couple of weeks." As for the idea that inside every fat person there's a thin person trying to get out: "Yes, because we've just eaten one!"
There was more food in The Victorian Sex Explorer, in which the actor Rupert Everett shared his fascination with the extraordinary 19th- century adventurer Sir Richard Burton, who unleashed the Kama Sutra on a bodiced-up English society, and thereby introduced the astounding idea that women ought to be warmed up sexually before being asked to lie back and think of England. I'm not sure Germaine Greer, or Jo Brand for that matter, would necessarily approve of the way this sentiment was conveyed in Burton's translation of the Kama Sutra: "As dough is prepared for baking, so must a woman be prepared for sexual intercourse", but it was at least a step in the right direction.
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