TELEVISION (Review): Muscling in on lives of quiet desperation

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The Independent Culture
SHORT STORIES (C4) began with a nice image of decline. There, in an empty husk of a Strathclyde steel mill, stood some bloke posing away, flexing his biceps. Now that the work has gone, the labour force of Coatbridge has turned to body-building: the muscles that built the empire now reduced to an oiled-up prop in the pursuit of narcissism.

It is very easy for those of us with arms the circumference of a chicken's leg and thighs that could see service as kebab skewers to make mockery of men who build their bodies into absurd parodies of reality. But, unlike this reviewer, Short Stories resisted the temptation. Mainly because, you suspected, the lads from Coatbridge would cave yer heed in at the first hint of a snigger. These were, as the subtitle suggested, 'Hard Men'.

'There's homos in this sport,' said a hugely muscled former welder as he polished up his friend's gleaming parts. 'But just 'cos I'm doing this, I wouldn't want you to think I'm one of them.'

Never said a word, mate.

The programme followed one builder, Brendan, through his pursuit of the title of Mr Strathclyde 1994. Brendan, in his mid-twenties, has never worked. Three years ago, he swapped a life of drowning his boredom in alcohol for one of weight- lifting. He met Jim, a bullying trainer who screamed abuse at him while he was doing his squat thrusts. He ate only tuna and potato for months and, for 12 weeks before the competition, he dieted to shed the last ounce of fat. The life of no food and intense training left him depressed, hungry and tired. There was, as he practised posing in his mum's flat, a certain nobility in his desperate effort to make something of a dead-end life.

All territory covered in the brilliant Pumping Iron, perhaps. But 'Hard Men' had a different spin. Mr Strathclyde was not the Mr Universe at the heart of that film. Held in a tiny community centre hall, it was parochial, tatty, not awash with glamour. Brendan, though, made a great poser, up there in his leather-look briefs: 'That's the best I've ever felt in my whole life. I was just like a peacock strutting about.'

Only the winner of this contest qualified for Mr Scotland, the next stage in world pectoral domination. Brendan came second. All that pain, suffering and self-denial proved, ultimately, futile: a metaphor for industrial Scotland.

While most telly eyes focused on Manchester last night were on Old Trafford, Video Diaries (BBC 2) was just down the road in Stretford, in the company of Sharon, a schizophrenic. Unlike Brendan, it did not appear Sharon had sought refuge in the gym.

'I can't get down this slide,' she panted as she was filmed in a children's playground. 'I'm too fat.'

The strength of Video Diaries is that, in camcorder culture, folk are more used to cameras about the place, they blend into the fabric, allowing the diarist to provide a glimpse of genuine real life, rather than the learnt responses accrued when a big film crew arrives on the scene.

And Sharon's life, as it emerged, was not of the kind featured in Hello] magazine. If you thought Brendan was on a downer, you should have seen what Sharon was on: a whole chemist's shop in her bathroom cabinet. Taken daily. But, supported by her husband, the saintly and articulate Mickey, a fellow sufferer ('I feel psychiatry attacked me, they set about me with their expertise'), Sharon did her best to battle the voices in her head as she searched for her natural mother. 'At last I'm going to see my mother,' she said at the end of the film. 'But I'm not going to film it, I've shared enough of my secrets.'

Fair enough. We had seen enough suffering for one night.