TELEVISION / Shaggy and not so shaggy human stories

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A BARBER once told me that the secret of securing a good tip was to brush your fingers surreptitiously against your customer's earlobes. Apparently this is passed on from generation to generation at hairdressing school though I have to report that it doesn't work at all if you tell the subject what's going on. In 'Heads and Tales' (BBC 2), a compendium of Some Things Related To Hair, a psychologist, Dr Halla Beloff, put the principle more formally. Hairdressing is an 'intimate service' she explained, directly related to the grooming of primates, an activity which promotes social harmony and good feeling. So, as you sit there staring into the mirror with fingers dabbling hopefully at your lobes, you can imagine yourself as a giant silver-backed gorilla, condescending to a hairy acolyte.

There didn't look to be much good feeling in the business for Alex Campbell, who was having Elvis's quiff macramed on to his thinning scalp. His white-knuckled fingers grasped the armrest as an unsympathetic technician plyed her needle, weaving the hairy Axminster into place and dabbing on superglue here and there just to make sure. She pulled the knots tight with an odd relish, as though determined to make him pay the full price for his decision. The result was certainly secure, so much so that it looked as if it had been lacquered and nailed to his head with carpet tacks.

Documentaries like this are built on the Christmas stocking principle - bung everything in and don't worry too much if it ends up looking lumpy - and their success depends on coming up with more toys than space-filling satsumas. Some of Geoff Dunlop's 40 Minutes film did seem makeweight - the little revolving interviews with people talking about their hairstyles, for instance - but he'd also turned up some real treats.

A fascinating little excursion to Russia revealed that impoverished families are selling off their granny's hair to buy groceries - bringing the locks wrapped in newspaper to be weighed and graded, as if they were the fibrous product of a private allotment (which, in a way, I suppose they are).

Several gung-ho entrepreneurs, displaying the sort of bespoke confidence that comes straight off a cassette, planned their campaign for a baldness treatment that combined hanging upside down like a bat and attending what you might call 'hair- raising' sessions. Is it pyramid-selling, asked an off-camera voice. 'Word-of- mouth marketing', one of the businessmen replied sternly. Their chief executive appeared to have a sizeable tonsure but he insisted it was diminishing daily under the exciting new regime.

It's easy to be too dismissive of men's anxiety about hair loss - particularly if you're looking through a fringe at the time - but when it comes to a woman the distress is unproblematic, not quite yet a matter of saying, 'Honestly, you look absolutely fine as you are.' Dunlop's film ended with a moving segment about a woman whose hair had fallen out overnight. She still went to the hairdresser, lying back to have her wig shampooed and snipped and set, seeking the old primate comforts of grooming and association, and you last saw her peering into the mirror at the dome of her skull, identifying new growth with all the desperate optimism of a shipwrecked sailor seeing wisps of smoke on the horizon.

'You've been hit by a bus,' explained a policeman, bent over a bleeding man in Karachi Kops (C 4). After last week's episode, which introduced you to the hands-on methods of the local constabulary, you wondered for a moment whether this was just a suggestion for a convincing story to tell the doctor; 'I slipped going into the cells' wouldn't plausibly cover the energetic interrogation technique of these desperately overworked policeman.

The rest of the film was a bit baffling, involving a tangle of family associations and dead-end investigations, and it made you wonder why this is a series rather than a one-off documentary.