Last Night's TV: Time to throw in the Victorian sponge
The Diets That Time Forgot, Channel 4; Horizon; BBC2; One life, BBC1
Wednesday 19 March 2008
One hundred years ago, we were told in The Diets That Time Forgot, the average female waist was 10 inches smaller and the average man was two stones lighter. This was an interesting statistic, but it needed, I thought, a little more context than the makers of this new series gave it. Take that regal tub of lard Edward VII, for example, who must have more than pulled his weight when it came to levering the average upwards. Or simply recall BBC4's recent programme Edwardian Supersize Me, in which Giles Coren and Sue Perkins adopted the diet of the Edwardian upper crust and nearly glutted themselves comatose. If, despite such bloated excess at the upper end of the social ladder, the average weight was lower, it suggests that those on the bottom rungs weren't really getting their fair share. Give it up now for those invaluable weight-loss programmes: poverty and exploitation. Forget Atkins or high fibre: what you really need to lose the pizza belly is 12 hours in a cotton mill with only bread and scrape for your lunch break.
The Diets That Time Forgot preferred to advance the fatuous notion that our predecessors avoided widespread obesity because they had better weight-loss regimes, and to test out this notion they had persuaded nine contemporary fatties to adopt three historical health programmes: a Victorian version of the Atkins diet, a deranged Edwardian system involving chewing every mouthful 32 times, and one of the earliest calorie-controlled diets. To pad the thing out, they had decided to give the contestants lessons in deportment and posture and invite Sir Roy Strong along to ponce about in a topper pretending to be the head of the Institute of Physical Culture. For some reason, the butler from The Edwardian Country House had been pulled out of retirement, too, presumably because they wanted to have him bemoaning the fact that everything started going to the dogs as soon as people stopped dressing for dinner.
The threesome on the chewing diet got the worst of it, obliged to masticate in time to matron's count and then tilt their head backwards and let anything that would, trickle down their throats. The residue had to be spat into a cup, a process so time-consuming that they weren't actually able to get through their starter before dinner came to an end. After two meals of this, they were so fed up that they mutinied, forcing Sir Roy to concede that they would be allowed to swallow after the 30-second munch, which you would have thought would rather have compromised the integrity of the diet. Then they all got into fancy dress, which cheered them up no end and, in the case of the ladies, had an instantaneous effect on their waistlines, thanks to whalebone stays and tight lacing.
If Horizon is to be believed, there is at least one respect in which the morbidly obese should be prized over their more slender counterparts. Apparently, you can harvest around two-and-half square feet of skin from an ordinary corpse, which, after processing, will produce $30,000 worth of medical products. So just imagine the profit to be made from those with skin to spare. The harvesting needn't stop there, either. How Much Is Your Dead Body Worth?, a film about the growing trade in body parts, suggested that if you could sell all the usable parts of a corpse in good condition, you could realise nearly $250,000, a sum that has inevitably resulted in some people cutting corners when it comes to bridging the gap between demand and supply.
Generally speaking, people with warehouses full of dismembered body parts don't like talking about their collection to television reporters, but there are legitimate businesses involved in this trade, happy to display chest freezers full of torsos and severed limbs and to talk openly about the process of "disarticulating", which is butchering to you and me. Michael Lachmann's film didn't blink at any of this, or the throat-tightening sight of a fresh corpse having its leg bones extracted and scraped clean before being bagged for resale. Bone is a big business, apparently, so much so that one New York dealer had arranged for some crematoriums to divert this valuable raw material without troubling the next-of-kin for permission.
Given continuing advances in medical science, the only realistic solution to the theft of body parts would be a vast increase in the availability of legitimate corpses, which makes you wonder why people aren't allowed to realise some of their own vital assets before they're too stiff to enjoy the profit. It could give a whole new meaning to the word mortgage.
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