In those far-off days before investigative TV documentaries, the worst outrage suffered on British beaches was sand in sandwiches and the blare of other people's transistor radios; now there are 100,000 astro-viruses per litre of Cornish seawater, each microscopic nasty threatening to turn the traditional summer holiday into one long evacuation.
Take a bracing dip (camera points at hapless teenager), and you could end up in a wheelchair. Tuck into a dozen native oysters and, within hours, you will be making your contribution to the 220 million gallons of sewage pumped everyday into the sea surrounding our holiday beaches.
A Dispatches reporter asked a morose mussel farmer what effect seaside sewage was having on takings: "Closed down". " So, what's this done to business, then?" "There's no business." This razor-sharp enquiry led us painfully slowly to the going down of the Dispatches tide. The owner of a private beach was asked about the extent of raw sewage threatening his pride and profit. "It's 2,000 times over the legal limit." "So, your beach fails to meet EC regulations, then?" Was the reporter under the influence of dodgy oysters? His editor might well have been: when, finally, we were shown a sample of those 220 millions gallons of filth - "and this is what it looks like" - the camera cut to glasses of champagne being filled in a seafood restaurant and a crowd of bright young things regaling us with tales of all-night diarrhoea and vomiting. One said he would never eat oysters again; the rest of us promised to give up champagne.
By then, Dispatches (the name of the programme was repeated ad nauseam, perhaps to remind viewers that this was not an episode of Casualty) had vomited up so much sewage, infected seafood and maritime dreads that you desperately wanted to be back with Andy Kershaw (disc jockey) and Owen O'Neill (comedian) on hip holiday trips to Beirut and Belfast for Travelog (C4). Owen O'Neill took us at a dizzy pace through a Belfast unknown to those who have risked their lives only on Cornish beaches. "Nothing in this city," he said, "is what it seems", revealing a Belfast constructed entirely from the eccentric and the whimsical. "Everyone in Belfast is a comedian," said O'Neill. Was he thinking of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley? "Belfast is a new place where anything can happen." Too right. But, what he really wanted to say, you felt, was that Belfast is a "city of contrasts".
Andy Kershaw was aching to describe Beirut as a "city of contrasts", too, but opted for "fragmented" instead. Fragmented Lebanon is such fun that the "only factional fighting left is over which team you support". Young men oiling AK-47s in the city's suburbs do so, presumably, just for laughs these days; doubtless, they would have a few in O'Neill's Belfast, too. "This was kidnap country," said Andy as we raced to the ruins of Roman Balbek where Ella Fitzgerald wowed this Mediterranean cosmopolis back in the good old days, which, trills Andy, are here again.
I had the uneasy feeling that Travelog had been sponsored by the national tourist bureaus of Ulster and Lebanon. Still, just think what Andy and Owen could do for Somalia and Serbia: much more fun, far more contrasts and a lot less dangerous than being sent on assignment to Cornwall for Dispatches.
n Thomas Sutcliffe is awayReuse content