Meet the Mormons, TV review: Very few revelations on mission to uncover Mormonism
Ellen E Jones
Ellen is The Independent's TV critic. She writes a daily review of Last Night's TV and a weekly 'Inside TV' column for the i paper, as well as a column on general topics for the main paper most Wednesdays. Ellen is a former Hollywood correspondent and a contributing editor to Little White Lies, she's written on TV, film, lifestyle, travel and politics for publications including the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Total Film.
Friday 27 June 2014
If you thought that Mormons were mostly confined to Salt Lake City and the Osmond family compound, you were wrong. As shown in Meet the Mormons (Channel 4), director Lynn Alleway's all-too-fleeting glimpse into missionary life, the Church of the Latter Day Saints is bustling with activity in the UK too.
The big boast of this hour-long, one-off documentary was Alleway's unprecedented access. Never before has the church's Utah HQ given a film-maker permission to document the lives of its UK members. But don't get too excited. It turns out that the Mormon definition of "access" and "no access at all" are, in effect, remarkably similar.
Alleway was allowed to shadow 20-year-old Josh as he set out on his two years of mandatory missionary work in Leeds, but she also had a shadow of her own; a representative of the Church who sat in on all of their interviews. There was footage of a Mormon temple's grand interiors, featuring chandeliers and life-sized model cows – but since no non-Mormon is allowed to enter, let alone film there, this was all pre-approved by the Church leadership. In agreeing to be filmed, their intention may well have been to dispel myths about Mormonism, but evidently old habits of secrecy die hard.
Josh's refusal to discuss their special chastity-promoting underwear, for instance, only made the long john-like garment seem undeservedly mysterious, while doctrines like Jesus's trip to America, baptisms for the dead, and the bar on female clergy were never actually broached. Instead, there were lots of shots of a mostly blank-faced Elder Field, as Josh was known in the church. These reminders of his inscrutability only made our frustration more acute. Alleway seemed convinced that if she could only get her subject alone, he would have revealed some hidden anguish behind this mask of calm. But was it a mask? I suspect that she hadn't factored in the stunting effect that weekends spent dancing to The Spice Girls at booze-free Mormon discos might have on character growth.
Better value was Morgan, a plump, blustering young man in a blazer and T-shirt combo, who managed to contribute a few thoughts on pre-marital sex before being firmly led away by Des the PR man. "I went on a date with this girl and we went to go watch a movie and – let me tell you – that was as fun as any form of sexual relationship could be," he announced with confidence.
"You haven't had sex, presumably?" ventured Alleway.
"No, I haven't. But the thing is, I know the chemical equation of it, so I can guess." Final score: Mormons 1 Documentaries 0.
Missionaries like Elder Field have an allowance of only £26 a week for food and haircuts, but they're still better off than Sammy-Jo, in another documentary from yesterday evening, Channel 4's Beauty Queen or Bust. As a hopeful Miss Black Country contestant, her £56 dole money has to stretch to rent, food, travel and a shedload of false eyelashes. So even though 44 years have passed since feminists protested Miss World 1970, it seems that women in dire economic straits are still reduced to trading off their looks in the hope of advancement. And woe betide the ugly ones.
Some things have changed, however; the outmoded swimsuit parade has been replaced by an "eco-wear" round, in which pageant contestants have to create an outfit from recycled materials. Twenty-two-year-old Natalie used human hair for her dress: "'Cause I do hairdressing and hair extensions for a living, I thought why not incorporate it into the eco round?" Why not, indeed.
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