TELEVISION REVIEW / A licence to drill for nobody's heroes

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
For anyone still feeling tender after last week's festival of medical gore, Cutting Edge (C4) administered another galvanic shock with its film on dental students. The initial scene - in which the students practised on pigs' heads - had you making some hasty resolutions about your diet. They were all fresh, the teacher assured the students. In fact, 'if we weren't going to use them today they would be in tomorrow's sausages' - right, you thought, no more boiled sweets, no more bangers. The pigs looked mournful as the students hacked and probed in their downturned mouths. It's the live patients who screech like stuck pigs.

The students had various motives for joining up: one young woman had been converted by her own experience of prosthetic dentistry, by the lure of building smiles for other people; another confessed that he had left school with only two O levels, in history and woodwork - so presumably thought himself at least qualified to say, 'Tell me about your past treatment while I get this drill ready'; another confessed that he enjoyed 'working with my hands and meeting people'. He might equally have been a tree surgeon or a plumber, but he's going to end up inside your mouth.

Odd, though, to pick a job where most of the people you meet don't want to meet you. Dentists, though they can relieve pain and transform people's emotional lives, are only rarely seen as saviours by their patients. It's hard to imagine creating a drama series based on their tender ministries, for example. This may be because the pain they inflict is so intimate.

'There's a risk of hurting people,' observed one tutor redundantly. You hardly need me to confirm the truth of it, but as it happens I can, having once sat in exactly this classroom while a student attacked my gums with an anaesthetic needle - the Iraqi Secret Service would have paid him well for his absence of skill. I thought I glimpsed my nail marks in one of the chairs, but I can't be sure.

It must be dispiriting, too, to treat ailments which are so easily preventable. The most disgusting sight in 'Open Wide' wasn't the drilling or extractions but that of a four-year-old boy with teeth the colour of blighted potatoes. He had to have 10 of them removed, and recovered from the anaesthetic in a state of understandable distress. His father, who you might have thought would have been chastened by inflicting this horrible experience on his son, didn't bother keeping the follow-up appointment a week later; the odds of the boy keeping his second set of teeth don't seem very high.

Adam Holloway has established a reputation for using the video-camera to probe the carious areas of modern society. Very rotten some of them have been, too. You could describe last night's World in Action (ITV) as a travel programme, one which simply but effectively demonstrated the cramped horizons of the disabled. Holloway took to a wheelchair to accompany Paul Bysouth, paralysed from the chest down, on a trip from his home to a job centre in Victoria. For an able-bodied person this would be a matter of an hour, tops, and a few quid for the fare. For Paul Bysouth, living on benefit, it was some five and a half hours and pounds 29, a nightmarish sequence of insurmountable stairs and insurmountable indifference. People weren't unkind exactly - most were sympathetic - but you could see that they didn't really think it was their problem.

The government argues that it would be too expensive to remove these obstacles to a moderately ordinary life, but that hardly explains why West End cinemas, for example, shouldn't be obliged to provide facilities for customers in wheelchairs. The piratical mark-up on the popcorn alone would pay for several lifts. The secret cameras didn't add much to the story, which was less a matter of hidden wrong-doing than a problem we simply can't see. They did, though, remind you of how maddening it must be to be constantly looked down at by people with half your resilience and determination.

Comments