Last Night's TV: The perils of friends in high places
The World's Tallest Woman and Me, Channel 4; What Happened Next? BBC4
Wednesday 14 May 2008
"In the 21st century, you'd think the freak show was dead," said Mark Dolan at the beginning of The World's Tallest Woman and Me. Well, only if you haven't watched any television recently, Mark, since countless programmes still bring the dubious joys of the geek show and the carny into our living rooms, including Balls of Steel (presenter, one Mark Dolan). Of course, Mark knows perfectly well that the freak show isn't dead and that he's done more than most men to keep its thrills alive. But he needs to position himself rather carefully for what he's engaged in now, which is tracking down extraordinary people in the privacy of their homes and pretending to care about their problems while the camera gets some clear shots for the gawpers back home. It's sort of freak-stalking, and having to show his face while doing it makes Mark so uncomfortable that the series might better have been titled "Travels with an Uneasy Conscience".
He began with very tall women, partly, I suspect, because he's very tall himself and so reckoned that his suggestion that this is an exercise in fellow feeling might be a little more plausible. At a gathering of the Central Arizona Tall Society, he met Ellen, who at 6ft 10in was able to indulge Mark in what he claimed was a long-cherished dream: to be able to hug a woman taller than he is. Other men want more than hugs, it seems. At the same event, Mark met a man who claimed he made around a million dollars a year with a website devoted to Amazonian woman. Ellen, a modest schoolteacher type, struck some innocuous poses for him in the racks of the local outsize-garment store, suggesting that there must be a fetish niche for homely giants in beige cardigans.
Ellen wasn't really what Mark was after, though, huggable as she was. She was tall, but not the tallest, so after a brisk pantomime of on-the-spot research, he travelled across country to pester Sandy Allen. To be fair, Sandy, notionally the world's tallest living woman, didn't look as if she really minded being pestered, visits from gauche British comedians being about as good as it gets in terms of male attention. The loneliness of all these women gave Mark another opening for a bit of face-saving solemnity, though you couldn't help but wonder whether Sandy hadn't set her sights a bit high. She wanted, she said, a man whose shoulder she could lay her head on, which narrowed the field somewhat when it came to prospects. Then Mark jetted off to China, where he delivered a pair of handmade shoes the size of a baby's bassinet to De-Fen Yao, a Chinese woman who turned out to be a bit taller than Sandy. "I couldn't help but feel that we'd created some kind of sideshow here," muttered Mark, as De-Fen's neighbours lined up to stare when she was coaxed into the open, with the help of a £800 sweetener, for an upright photo-opportunity. One hopes that Sandy doesn't find out about her demotion, incidentally, since the one silver lining in her rather bleak existence was the belief that she was a living superlative. The only thing worse than being the world's tallest woman, on the evidence of this stubbornly melancholy film, would be being the world's second tallest.
What Happened Next?, in which the subjects of past fly-on-the-wall documentaries are revisited, was beautifully summed up in a late remark from George, the ex-driver/manager of the Global Village Trucking Company, a hippie rock band whose communal life in a Norfolk cottage gave the viewers of 1973 something to tut and marvel at. "At the time, I thought of myself as being not particularly good-looking but very, very clever... and then looking back at the film, I had the opposite impression. I thought, 'Oh... I was better looking than I realised at the time, but so stupid.'" You and me both, George, and a lot of others besides, I suspect.
Not that the film was bitter or disillusioned. Indeed, much of its pleasure lay in the way that most of the members of the band had diverted their youthful idealism and contempt for the Man into far more conventional channels, even, in the case of Jeremy Lascelles, into becoming the Man himself, as CEO of Chrysalis Records. Some had stayed true to hippie ideals – Kanga, the roadie, now lives at the Beshara School of Intensive Esoteric Education – while others had simply given them a good scrub up. Dave and Danielle, last seen sitting naked in a bath in a cottage with mildewed walls and a scrofulous thatch, were interviewed in a glacially white modern kitchen, but plausibly suggested that their life with their children was a commune by other means. I didn't envy them for having to live like that in the first place, but I envied them memories this fond and unperturbed.
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