Last night's viewing - I Woke Up Gay, BBC3; Meet the Romans with Mary Beard, BBC2
Ystrad Mynach in south Wales isn't a big place but even so I doubt that Chris Birch is the only gay in the village. He may well be the only gay in the village who thinks he got that way by accident, though. After rolling head first down a grassy slope, Chris had a minor stroke. When he came round, he claims, he immediately knew that he was different. Gone was the rugby-loving hetero bloke he had been. In his place was a young man with an eye for the lads and a strong interest in hair-care products. "My life changed at the bottom of that hill," said Chris, when he revisited the fateful incline for the cameras. Sadly, although tabloid newspapers have been eagerly trusting of Chris's account, others (including his current boyfriend) are a bit more sceptical. They believe that Chris did a forward roll out of a state of denial.
Given that Chris is very happy as he is now (and wouldn't want to change back) this shouldn't really matter either way. People's personalities do change following strokes, after all, and inhibition or social conformity might be one of the qualities altered. Besides, since all our sexualities are a matter of chance, you might argue that it's only a question of timing. But for Chris it seems psychologically important to prove that external circumstances flipped a switch in his head from"straight" to "gay" when he was 19. He went off to visit a researcher into sexual orientation to do a questionnaire testing "how gay your brain is". If that didn't set off alarm bells in your head, the fact that the test depended on detailed questions about the past and that Chris claimed to have forgotten much of his pre-stroke life surely should have. Hardly surprisingly it was inconclusive... which left Chris in a decidedly testy mood.
A Liverpudlian man who'd been turned into a compulsive painter by his stroke was more sympathetic, but may not have convinced the doubting viewer. "I never had talent before," he said confidently, showing Chris a series of works that didn't offer a lot of proof that he had it now. Oddly, it doesn't seem to have occurred to Chris to check with any of his old girlfriends for evidence of previous sexual disposition until it was suggested by the film-makers. He drew up a short list (which concluded, unnervingly, with the phrase "various grannies") and then went off to see one of them. It was an inadvertently revealing occasion. Chris was thrilled to find that she had a photograph of herself sitting on his lap in a big group portrait, but appeared selectively deaf when it came to what she actually said. "I would never have openly said you were gay," she told him. Such a relief, Chris replied happily, to hear someone who knew him say, "You know, I never thought you were gay." Ahem. The word "openly", Chris? Did you hear that as well?
Meet the Romans with Mary Beard exemplifies two current BBC vices. There's the clumsily over-extended title, which insists on shoehorning in the talent, just in case we worry that we might be going to meet the Romans with someone we haven't heard of. And then there's the tediously repetitive teaser intro, which offers a Russian salad of "coming attractions", all chopped to buggery so that none of them make any sense anymore. But if you can endure the bit that's supposed to seduce you, you do eventually get to stuff that really will, namely extended narrative and scholarly expertise. Highlights last night were a visit to Monte Testaccio, a huge Roman midden of broken amphorae, which testifies to the scope of the empire, and Beard's unforced delight at the humanity captured by Roman funerary inscriptions. Note to the executive producer: why not just let her tell the story from the beginning? She's really good at it. And you're not.
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