TV review: Eye Spy - Lost in the ethical maze without a moral compass


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The Independent Culture

Would you help yourself to a holdall of cash abandoned in a phone box? Or intervene in a restaurant if a customer was subject to racist abuse from a waiter? You’d take the cash, buy the restaurant and sack the waiter – of course, you would. Not everyone is like you, though, oh heroic reader.

But in its first episode on Thursday, Eye Spy took these and other saloon-bar moral conundrums and showed that presenting such loaded situations comes with some awkward ethical questions of its own.

Short “live” experiment followed  filmed stunt followed candid camera style scenes, a conveyor belt of scruples for the viewer to snack on. A few were quite tasty: of 50 wallets, each with a £10 note, dropped around the country, only a dozen were handed in, just one with its tenner.

Another turned received opinion on its head: a fictional hedge-fund manager and a builder each presented their tax avoidance in the same terms to a large “jury” of viewers, who, we were told, were significantly more relaxed about the hedgie’s off-shore accounts than the builder’s cash-in-hand payments.

But, as its narrator Stephen Fry stated at the outset, Eye Spy is intended “to give the British a chance to stand up and be counted”. With this, the programme attempted a queasy shift from observer of human nature to shrill commentator.

Thursday’s big set piece was calculatedly toxic: over the course of an evening, a waiter addressed a mixed-race couple in ever more bigoted terms. All three were actors, but their fellow diners, gawping across the floor, were not. Would they “do the right thing”? This racial drama was secretly filmed in London, Manchester, and then in a curry house in east London with an Asian waiter and customers. 

Let’s draw a veil over the differing responses of the diners – suffice to say I’ve never seen a more meek gathering of Mancunians. Rather, the programme-makers might look to themselves. Several of Eye Spy’s set-ups were presented in vague terms of scientific enquiry; at one point a famous Stanford University experiment was re-created. But in what way were the diners of the various restaurants representative of their age groups and origins, social and geographical? We weren’t told.

But we were most definitely invited to make some worryingly general moral judgements –often by Fry’s narration, which presided over the lot in the manner of a tub-thumping Daily Mail columnist. Which raises a final question: why did those filmed agree to sign the release forms and connive in this crude moral surveillance?

Finally, my new late-night treat: I’ve been catching the  repeats of The Rise of the Continents, Professor Iain Stewart’s handsome tour of the world’s most exciting stones and pebbles. I’ve learned much over the first two parts. East Africa, for instance, is on a countdown to disaster (a geologist’s countdown, that is – it will be consumed by a vast subterranean magma bloom in mere tens of millennia). It's enjoyable enough to forgive the makers the daft moments when they turn their amiable presenter into Benedict Cumberbatch: the prof goes into a trance of numbers and flashbacks, solving some geological puzzle – Iain Stewart, the Sherlock of rock.