TELEVISION REVIEW / The nips and tucks of outrageous fortune

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The Independent Culture
I MOANED aloud quite a lot during 'The Body Shop' (BBC 1), an Inside Story film about plastic surgery. I moaned when a steel chisel was pushed up a young man's nostril and hit with a mallet; I moaned when the surgeon waggled a liposuction cannula underneath his patient's skin, like someone hoovering underneath a pink rug; I moaned piteously when they did the tummy tuck, stitching the skin over what looked like a badly set trifle. But the loudest groan came when they played 'Stay Young and Beautiful' on the soundtrack.

For 20 minutes or so Catharine Seddon had put up a heroic resistance against trite cliche, and then cliche had won.

The moan was the louder because she had managed, against all odds, to win you over. Perhaps the very last thing television needs is another documentary about plastic surgery. There is a large warehouse on the outskirts of Strasbourg where they keep the plastic-surgery film mountain; the EEC is even considering a set-aside scheme, paying directors to film ponies or Alpine scenery rather than add to the glut. It will be difficult to change old habits, though - as a subject, plastic surgery offers a cheap dividend of moral superiority and gore. It's queasy money.

But, from its opening frames, Seddon's film suggested she might give a face-lift to this sagging theme. Her method was an odd mix of the mischievous and the tactful, the resulting film both slyly comic and genuinely melancholy. She seized upon the fact that the clinic was having an extension built. 'For lipoplasty, known also as body-contouring, dial 423' said a genteel voice from the clinic's answering machine, as you looked at a labourer with the contours of the Quantock Hills. There was a point to this, as to many other glancing details - a point about male attitudes to their bodies which was there for you to pick up but which you weren't obliged to shoulder. There was a similar wry wit to the way she presented those who profit from the business.

But when it came to the patients, Seddon advanced with considerate caution, tiptoeing towards their real desires with such tact that they occasionally put into words what she couldn't. 'Some people think I'm a half-crazed anorexic, but I'm not,' said the woman who had gone in for a tummy tuck, and you understood why Seddon had included an earlier scene in which she adamantly refused to eat an evening meal. Seddon let the denial stand but then asked whether she had ever wanted children. 'No,' she said too quickly.

'Fifteen years ago I thought I might have. I would have liked a daughter but it would have been for the wrong reasons. Selfish. . . like a toy I suppose, that I could go and buy her beautiful things.' She laughed as if she was being silly, but the truth was movingly explicit here, a reminder that when people with perfect bodies go to plastic surgeons the scar is often under the skin.

The profession was given a better showing in Children's Hospital (BBC 1), in which a plastic surgeon sewed up the ragged scar on a young child's face. I know all the arguments about such programmes - that they inform the public and ease our fears - but there's no getting round the fact that this is popular programming and that it simply wouldn't be as popular without the visible distress of children, without the bloody 'before' which the 'after' resolves. In this case the 'before' was a young girl having a fit and a baby with its face ripped open. How on earth would you go about explaining this to a traveller from another time? 'In this century we divert ourselves in the evening by watching scenes of children in pain. But, tell me, why do you think that strange?'