Last Night's TV: Wonderland: The Trouble with Love and Sex/BBC2
24 Hours in A&E/Channel 4
Thursday 12 May 2011
The interesting question about Wonderland's intriguing film The Trouble with Love and Sex is whether its technique – documentary soundtrack of Relate counselling sessions paired up with expressive animation – added something or took it away. You could reasonably answer both ways, and in either case you might argue that the result was to be applauded or deplored. So – beginning with subtraction – it's self-evident that this approach deprived us our ability to judge by appearances. But did that make it more difficult for us to exactly interpret the nuances of meaning in the exchanges we heard, or did it oblige us to listen without prejudice? As for addition, did the fact that recalled psychological traumas were bodied forth on screen intensify their impact or simply force us to accept the animator's judgement of what was most significant? I'm not sure that there were conclusive answers to any of these questions but the result was steadily gripping, often very funny and sometimes very sad.
There is an obvious precedent for the odd-couple marriage of real voices and imagined speakers – Nick Park's Creature Comforts, which put the thoughts of ordinary people about their homes into the mouths of zoo animals. There were memories of that in Zac Beattie's film, particularly in the way that animators will clutch at any clue – tapping fingers, say, or a barely heard little tut. But, tempting as it might have been to have marital agonies filtered through the medium of a Plasticine anteater, the gravity of the source material here pretty much ruled out anything that could be accused of flippancy. The style did allow for comedy, as when a lonely client called Dave mentioned Peter Andre and Katie Price to clarify his predicament, and discovered that his therapist had no idea who they were. And it offered a certain scope for satire too, in forensically exposing the awkward manners of the therapeutic relationship. But it had to be able to pull back into something bleaker, without the risk of bathos.
The suggestion that the animation secured access that would otherwise have been impossible seemed a tiny bit implausible. True, Relate might have found it tricky to open its doors to a conventional documentary, but if the participants had all agreed the ethical aspect would have been no different, and it seemed clear that everybody involved had been happy to mic themselves up even when they weren't in the counselling session. Would a camera really have been a deal-breaker given the avidity with which people invade their own privacy these days? On the other hand, the veil of the cartoon did increase your patience in listening through apparent banality for a moment of revelation (an important skill for a therapist, armchair or professional). There was a startling moment when Dave's drab and melancholy account of his difficulties in forming relationships suddenly twisted into a memory of his father's attempt to kill him when he was a child, and – a bit less dramatic – a sudden crystallisation of Susan's dissatisfaction with her marriage. "I don't see how you can have been completely miserable with a bloody big garden, swimming pool and your nice car," said Iain, as the couple looked back through old photographs. "You really mean that, don't you?" replied an incredulous Susan. Had they wanted to go as far as a Tom and Jerry jaw-drop, the tone of voice would certainly have sanctioned it.
Therapy was occasionally teased by the technique, as in an excruciating moment when Dave's counsellor produced a letter he'd written, addressed "Dear Darker Influences", which he invited Dave to sign as a way of moving on. How either of them kept a straight face I'm not sure, but the truth was that Dave seemed genuinely moved and touched by this gesture, and another couple were also helped by their sessions. Susan and Iain, less promisingly, were last seen bickering their way to a date in a country pub, though a title card revealed that Iain's death had finally ended the rows that Relate couldn't. That you felt a real pang on reading this was proof, if it was needed, that the human element had survived the cartooning.
Editing is a kind of caricature too, highlighting details so that what is characteristic becomes unmissable. You could see the principle at work in 24 Hours in A&E, yet another example of Channel 4's favourite new genre, the fixed-camera documentary. The raw material is familiar enough, though presented here with an unusual degree of candour (a wall-mounted camera, permanently on, never alerts its subjects to the fact that they've just started doing something "filmable"). But the real art comes in the selection of footage. "We've got a juicy one coming in in a minute," said the lead trauma consultant, alerting his team to an incoming patient. Then, after all the fuss was over, you kept seeing him going over the grisly extravagance of the case with his colleagues, with an almost prurient thrill that you wouldn't have expected from a hardened professional. Suddenly, he stopped being a mere functionary in one of television's most familiar dramas and could be seen as someone with a certain vanity about the extremity of the damage he dealt with. I also liked the old lady, in at the bedside of her 77-year-old husband, who'd fallen off a ladder and down a stairwell while decorating for his daughter. "There's white paint all up Jane's settee," she said accusingly, as he came round.
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