Last Night's TV: Seven Dwarves/Channel 4

Wilfred/BBC3

 

When Channel 4 announced that it was dropping Big Brother two years ago the Channel's head said that filling the hole it left in the schedules would involve "the most fundamental creative overhaul in our history". So, what are they treating us to in the week that Channel Five throws open the doors to the Big Brother house for the first time? One of the "event dramas" they promised?

Well, no actually. We're getting the Little People House instead, or Seven Dwarves – an observational series that follows the lives of seven panto performers all living in the same house for a Christmas season. And, like that optical illusion in which a hideous crone turns into a demure young woman and then back again, last night's episode flickered oddly in front of your eyes. "Seven little people with big personalities", promised the jaunty voice-over, and you braced yourself for a tawdry freak show. But then Max came on (Grumpy by casting, but not by nature) and you began to wonder. Is it possible that what was really discomfiting here was our own questionable discomfort? And would a decorous invisibility really be better than a platform, even if it risked turning into a carnival booth from time to time?

The provisional verdict is an acquittal, I think – and not just because the series comes from the same people who made 24 Hours in A&E, a documentary with a pretty good sense of where the line between sympathy and prurience is drawn – but also because nobody on screen has been forced to take part. To imagine that because these people are child-sized their capacity to make informed decisions about their own lives is similarly diminished would make you guilty of exactly the condescending sentimentality that is one of the hazards of their daily life (as evidenced by the impertinent liberties taken by a friendly drunk in a nearby pub). They have had years to get used to people's reactions to their height and are probably far shrewder judges than anyone watching of whether they're being exploited or not – or whether the deal would be worth it to them even if they were.

Last night's episode concentrated on Max, who works in telesales (where his voice is the same size as all his colleagues) but dreams of making it as an actor. Panto didn't really count as a fulfilment of this dream ("It's not really a role. You just have to act as you're named"), but he'd also had a part in a sub-Guy Ritchie film feature, which he hoped might lead in more interesting directions. He was also warily exploring his first relationship with a woman of the same size, a fellow cast member called Karen, who Max described, in a moment of telling euphemism, as "a... petite lady". There are plenty of moments when Seven Dwarves feels as if it has rung the wrong kind of bell, summoning uneasy memories of Psychoville's provocative dance along the borders of good taste. And there are details that strike you as very odd indeed, such as the row of Disney soft-toy dwarves you saw ranged along Josh's bedhead at one point. But it also builds a sense that everyone here is the lead in their own life – and not just a novelty walk-on for a Christmas entertainment. One of the funniest scenes, when Max, Karen and Craig got rolling drunk and delivered a scabrous parody of Snow White round the kitchen table, wasn't funny because they were dwarves, but because they were fully in control of the laughter and which way it was pointing.

Wilfred began with Ryan (Elijah Wood) redrafting his suicide note and gulping down a suicide smoothie. This isn't a conventional opening for a sitcom, but then Wilfred isn't a conventional comedy, rather a strange hybrid of shaggy-dog story and outsider quirkiness. Wilfred is Ryan's neighbour's dog, seen as such by everyone except Ryan and us, to whom he appears as a sardonic doper Australian wearing a knowingly unconvincing dog-suit. Ryan thinks that Wilfred is a symptom of nervous breakdown, but it's soon clear that he's going to become Ryan's best friend, tutoring him in the more instinctive life. And, once you've got used to its low-key pace, it's genuinely funny, with Wilfred alternating between the administration of slacker philosophy and a hapless submission to his own doggy instincts, as when the friendly ear-ruffling of a pretty waitress ends in Wilfred's vigorous attempt to mate with her leg. Take a sniff. You might like it.

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