Last Night's TV: World's Tallest Man: Looking for Love/Channel 4
Breaking a Female Paedophile Ring/Channel 4
Friday 27 May 2011
There's something rather uncomfortable about Channel 4's Bodyshock series. That's not really a surprise, is it? The entire raison d'etre is to point and stare. And so it is that we've had films like The 27 Inch Man, Dad's Having a Baby and – a particular favourite – the poetically titled I Am the Elephant Man. The latest instalment is this: World's Tallest Man: Looking for Love. Combine that with the word "Bodyshock" and it sounds like a recipe for disaster. So, you know, expectations on the backburner.
But guess what? It could have been worse. The title wasn't really in the slightest bit informative. Rarely is this a good thing; in this instance it was a blessing. There were no speed-dating sessions or drunken trawls round Oceana. No forced pick-up lines or awkward first dates. OK, actually there was one of those (on which more later). But, by and large, World's Tallest Man: Looking for Love wasn't quite the hideous prospect it appeared.
High praise indeed. Possibly it was Sultan who redeemed it. The so-called WTM, it would be almost impossible to render him undignified. Towering over the hordes (and, at over eight feet, he undoubtedly does tower; only 10 people in the modern world have reached his height), he produced the odd and rather satisfactory effect of making everyone else look peculiar: little gawping ants, snapping away with their puny camera phones.
He's spent most of his life hovering on the periphery. From the age of eight, said the narrator, Sultan started growing "uncontrollably". As a child, born into a small village in Turkey, he was so self-conscious that he spent most of his time indoors. The result has been a life without many close relationships. "Since I'm different," observed Sultan. "People aren't affectionate towards me."
It's all rather awful, really. It gets worse. The reason Sultan is so tall, the reason he's endured so much that's miserable is because he's ill. He has suffered – and possibly still does – from a tumour within the pituitary gland, which results in excessive levels of growth hormone being produced. It means that even now, at the grand old age of 27, he's still growing. He's getting taller, his feet bigger and his fingers longer. More seriously, his internal organs are all enlarging, too. Gigantism, it turns out, puts potentially fatal strain on the heart. Despite repeated medical procedures, the inches keep appearing. At his last check-up, seen on camera, he was found to have tumour cells lurking in his sinuses. There are treatments, but they're far from guaranteed to succeed.
It's not all doom and gloom. For all its morbid causes, Sultan's illness has allowed him to enter the Guinness World Records. This, by all accounts, appears to have brought him tremendous satisfaction. He can earn money with public appearances and leads the sort of life few of his village contemporaries enjoy, full of international travel and with a flat in Ankara. The latter was given to him by the Turkish government, though they don't seem to have given much thought to the practicalities. Aside from a single, enormous bed, almost everything in the flat is too small.
The Guinness staff lurked in the background. With every inch he grew, they chuckled gleefully, congratulating him on his new record. Despite Sultan's satisfaction, it was all a little weird. The exception came in the form of Kelly, Guinness's director of HR. Fluent in Turkish, she and Sultan seemed to have a genuine bond. She's met his family, they travel together, and she listens to his concerns about growing old alone. At 27, Sultan is a year older than the average groom in Turkey.
Ah yes: the date. Sultan's first, apparently, played out before the TV cameras. This we could have done without. There was no obvious attempt to humiliate. It just felt a little... invasive. The lady in question – pretty, articulate, softly spoken – was chosen by a friend and had, we were told, not been informed of her dining companion's height in advance. As it happens, I don't believe that for a moment – though if it's true, that's a nasty trick by the producers. In the event, the occasion looked rather nice. It's not hard to imagine Sultan doing this rather well – and winning a girl in the process.
The problem with the Cutting Edge series, from a reviewer's perspective, is that there's not that much to say. There's always a lot of information to regurgitate, often something positive to note about the direction, pace, that sort of thing. But rarely a huge amount more. This is because they're always quite good. Quite good, not amazing, definitely not about to change your life.
And so it was with Breaking a Female Paedophile Ring, which was fascinating largely because it would be impossible to make a film about Colin Blanchard and his group of female accomplices, arrested in 2009, without it being fascinating. Fascinating and horrible and upsetting.
We got to hear the tapes of the various suspects being interviewed, how they changed their stories, slowly dripping details. Interspersed were interviews with various people on the periphery: the niece of one convicted woman, the husband – can you imagine? – of another, the parents at a primary school where one of the women worked. There was a nifty trick of using a pin board, some Post-its and a piece of string to demonstrate the connections between them all. It was gripping – but how could it not be?
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