Last Night's Television - Secrets for Sale, BBC1; Horizon, BBC2

Stranger than fiction
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The Independent Online

It's been a while since I last attended morning conference at The Independent, but I don't recall that they were ever quite as lively as those at Real People magazine. "I just want to be able to put 'Stiletto Massacre' somewhere," said one journalist yearningly, discussing a possible strap-head. Another tactfully pointed out that a single fatality probably didn't qualify as a massacre. And then, a little later, it was time for an editorial head-to-head about how to present the story filed under "Had Brain Haemorrhage While Masturbating". Real People, just one of seven fiercely competitive true-life story magazines, has a largely female readership and – as far as one could tell from Jaclyn Parry's engaging film – an almost exclusively female staff. And as Secrets for Sale began, Samm, Real People's editor, had just outbid her competitors for a hot property – an exclusive interview with Maureen, whose husband had poisoned her tea with mercury but escaped a jail sentence after claiming that he'd only done it as part of a complicated plot to win her affection back. Maureen, understandably I think, wasn't happy to let matters lie, and had sold the rights to "Poisoned by My Terry's Deadly Cuppa" for £3,000.

Money is clearly a consideration for some contributors. Sarah, saddled with £12,000 of student loan debts, had woken one morning and realised she had a tradeable asset – the story of how a minor bout of self-pleasure had ended in brain surgery and temporary paralysis. ("The more my headache got worse the more I thought I've got to relax myself," she explained, conjuring a picture of a grimly self-defeating exercise in digital stress relief). She seemed pleasantly surprised to find that she could command £500 for revealing the exact circumstances of her haemorrhage. But money isn't the priority for some, so much as an audience for their troubles. Gina, whose husband had died of cancer just two months before their son was born, wanted to publicise aspects of his treatment, while the mother of a small boy with a heart condition "wanted other people to realise what children like Aidan go through". "I haven't sold Aidan's story, I've told it," she said, "and I think there's a difference." The cynical view would have said it's a slim distinction when money changes hands, but the cynical view would miss the non-pecuniary need that fuels both supply and demand in this market.

Aidan's mum did get her wedding paid for by Real People, part of a Christmas good news treat for regular readers and an affair that fortunately passed off without any disasters – nuptial catastrophes being another staple of the genre. Samm and her reporter happily recalled some great headlines of the past: "I do, I do, I spew", about a wedding in which everyone had succumbed to food poisoning, and "Horse and Carnage", about the one where the bridal carriage bolted on the way to the ceremony, ultimately delivering the bride to intensive care. The perfect recipe, it seems, is schadenfreude mixed with a sentimental reassurance that there's always a silver lining, a quality beautifully illustrated by a Real People classic: "No Willy! But My Hubby's Great in Bed!".

The film concluded with the magazine's subjects commenting on their own stories. Given that she and her husband were humanists, Gina wasn't overjoyed by her headline, "Daddy's Last Gift from Heaven", and Sarah felt that "Orgasm Made My Brain Explode" was lighter on clinical detail than she had hoped, but Maureen and her daughter Julie seemed well pleased when they popped into Nooze and Booze to pick up the latest edition. "She's done a good job," said Maureen, happy that over a million readers would be re-acquainted with her husband's perfidy. Interestingly, a rival magazine had tried to spoil Samm's exclusive by getting in early with "Last Laugh of the Wife Poisoner", an insight into media rivalry that will no doubt be of interest to James Quinn, director of My Daughter Grew Another Head and Other True Life Stories, a Channel 4 documentary on exactly the same subject that goes out tomorrow night.

The Horizon film "Did Cooking Make Us Human?" was for some reason tricked out with emetic close-ups of people eating like pigs. But, in between those queasy grace notes, there was some interesting science too, exploring the still disputed theory that a combination of food and fire lit the fuse for human development. If you live on the diet of an australopithecine man you have to spend most of your day chewing or digesting or venting intestinal gas. Cook your food first, on the other hand, and you've got energy to spare for sharpening sticks. The bones told the story – gut and ribcage shrinking and cranial capacity expanding. "We have cooking and we have small guts," summed up one scientist. Or rather we have giant ones, because even our evolved brains haven't evolved quite enough to stop us having that extra kebab our prehistoric ancestors would have killed for.

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