Last Night's TV: Sex Change Soldier, Channel 4<br/>A Cook's Tour Of Spain, Channel 4

Now that's what you call an about-turn
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Sex-change documentaries are to Channel 4 what Diana, Princess of Wales stories are to the Daily Express: the reliable standby whenever you can't find anything fresh or important to hold the public's attention. At least Sex Change Soldier had an angle, one that's given away by the title. Yes, Capt Ian Hamilton (Jan, as we must get used to calling him, or rather her) was the first serving officer in the British Army to announce an intention to change sex.

There was, you might suspect, something interesting to be said about the particularly noisy clash here between machismo and femininity, views of sexual roles that can scarcely coexist. How on earth could someone who thinks of himself as a woman live in such an obtrusively manly world? How do you function in a phallocracy when your chief desire is to have your own phallus lopped off? And there were a couple of moments in Jane Preston's film when that suspicion was richly confirmed. At one point, Preston explained in voice-over that Jan had not gained acceptance from her former colleagues in the military. Over Jan's shoulder, we glimpsed a computer screen on which was displayed what seemed to be an online forum devoted to her case. The forum title was "Would you shag it?", and from what I could make out, the consensus was not just no, but a no so emphatic and expressed in such obscene and vicious terms as to be quite traumatising.

And at another point, discussing her earlier service in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jan talked of a misery so intense that she had volunteered for dangerous missions in the hope of finding an end to it all. This is, by the way, nothing new. A brief acquaintance with military memoirs will make it clear that the armed forces have always relied on having at least a few soldiers so bloody unhappy that they don't care whether they live or die. Homosexuality used to be a good motivator: Siegfried Sassoon, for example, earned his nickname "Mad Jack" and his Military Cross after the death of a boy he had been in love with (though in his fictionalised Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, the relationship was glossed as a strong friendship). But in these more liberal times, being gay may not make soldiers feel sufficiently cast out from society: perhaps would-be transsexuals are the VCs of the future.

Regrettably, Preston didn't pursue these lines of thought, instead allowing the film to proceed along what are now well-worn grooves. The film of the subject putting on the make-up and clothes, the interview with the supportive wife or girlfriend (or somewhat less supportive ex-wife or ex-girlfriend), the insistence that it is all a very simple matter of having a female mind but a male body, the trip to an exotic location for the surgery, the wobbly moments the night before...

Those who, such as me, have seen rather too many of these documentaries, could at least enjoy a few quirky details. Having been a paratrooper, Ian had been particularly large and fit, and as Jan, found herself having to lose five stone and a good deal of muscle tone to achieve a feminine physique. Ian also had a notably masculine physiognomy: in order to achieve, as Jan, a face closer to her idol, Sophia Loren, a Thai plastic surgeon was planning to pull off all the flesh from her face and grind and slice the underlying bone structure down, as well as snipping and stitching the eyelids into a more almond shape. Ouch. I suppose if you're planning on having your genitals snipped off, that seems like pretty small potatoes. After all that, Jan later confessed that she still looked like a transsexual rather than a woman; if it's any comfort, I thought she looked rather like Davina McCall. And then there was the meeting with his long-estranged wife, Morag. "I think it was very difficult for her," Jan explained, "when, within five minutes of arriving, the person who was her husband was going, 'Look at my new breasts.'"

Even moments that should have felt more human and tender – Jan's lament at being disowned by her parents, her confession of a childhood history of sexual abuse – felt disembodied. Perhaps unfairly, I thought that if Jan was determined to leave behind so completely the person she had once been, she ought to be prepared for others to refuse to join her on the journey.

All in all, this was about as much fun as watching a pig being butchered. I can state this authoritatively, because I'd just been watching that happen on A Cook's Tour of Spain, in which Tommi Miers, a former MasterChef champion, travels round Spain to show off its culinary traditions. This was all perfectly OK, in a dull, formulaic way. To give Miers and her co-presenter, Guy Grieve, their due, it took almost half an hour before either of them told us how "passionate" the Spanish are about food; but talk of passion doesn't sit easily with their harping on about how simple the food is to cook. What kind of passion is it that wants to get it over with quickly and without complication? At least you couldn't accuse Jan of that.