Television: More intimate than pillow talk
Sunday 24 May 1998
Except this was episode one of The Human Body (BBC1, Wednesday), and - as far as I can tell from the journey to work this morning - we still have quite a few bodies over here in Britain. There are in fact loads of them about if you just look carefully. But this is a big-budget production, and one way in which you announce to the world that a series is a big deal is by locating it in as many continents as you possibly can. It's not a producer-must- travel thing, it's more a look-at-the-helicopter-tracking-shot-on- that thing.
Anyway, I don't mind. The licence fee hasn't suddenly shot up, and some American co-producer probably paid for most of the gadding about in any case. And - be fair - one must applaud the restraint shown by everybody involved in handling one key aspect of the series: its title. In the last year we have had, you will recall, Jonathan Miller's Opera Works, and - most grandiose of all - Stephen Hawking's Universe. So we should be thankful that, despite the involvement of one of our most eminent and media-friendly doctors, this series has not gone out under the moniker of Robert Winston's Body.
Although, for once, that would have been an accurate description, because we do spend quite an awful lot of time inside Prof Winston. "Let me take you on a journey into my ear," he says seductively, and before we have time to wrap ourselves in tissue paper, there we are disappearing inside his shell-like, passing though his eardrum (whee!), and spiralling round his cochlea. Or he will abruptly stick a tube down his throat and bring us all face to face with his yodelling uvula. Once - like in Star Wars - we swooped low over the Death Star of his face and (yahoo!) dived in though a pore. A sweaty pore, with your actual close-up tidal wave of sweat in it. Veins followed, as did tear ducts - for Winston, you see, is Churchillian, and has nothing to offer us but blood, sweat, tears and (I horribly suspect, in some future episode) toilet.
But even if he takes us on a trip to the bowels of, er, whoever, I will follow him, because the guy has real star quality. He sounds great, he holds a baby with wonderful tenderness, he delivers perfect pieces to camera, and he has an instantly recognisable persona and physiognomy. The ruddy rounded cheeks, Zapata moustache, curly dark hair, glasses and crinkly eyes could almost be trademarked now. They will soon be selling Robert Winston masks next to the Tom Baker scarves in the BBC shop. In fact, my only caveat about Winston's performance is that he could afford to speak just a tad more quickly, and should resist any effort to make him any more camp.
Clearly, Winston's success as a presenter has influenced his producer, who has turned the doc into an extraordinarily ubiquitous presence. He turns up everywhere: in a firefighter's suit; in a blue bathing cap with attached electrodes; on a tube, sitting between two suspiciously inert newspapers; shot in infra-red to show the heat sources of his head; down by hot pools and up on rock formations; inside a huge fish tank at the London Aquarium, dressed up in a deep-sea diver's gear. Indeed, even when we are inside someone else, one finds oneself looking for Winston round every colonic bend. Never mind Where's Wally? Where's Winston? Ah! There he is.
The whole of episode one was, essentially, a vastly prolonged trailer for the rest of the series: it was full of tasters and titbits designed to intrigue and draw us on. Like the cor-fancy-that stats section, in which we discovered that we each cry 65 litres of tears a week (or was it a decade?), and pass enough wind to have powered the entire Zeppelin fleet of the Kaiser for two years of war (no, I made that one up). But whereas it did seem to me that our shedding of 19 kilos of dead skin was a body fact, the information that we fall in love twice and have a 60 per cent chance of staying married was surely a matter of sociological fact, just shoved in here to tart things up a bit.
As was making love 2,580 times to five different people (518 each, if evenly distributed). Now, if we start at the age of 17, and reckon to stop at about the age of 43 (at least, that's my experience), that means that the average person does it about 100 times a year, or just under twice a week. Well, someone, if you ask me, is lying.
Next week it's babies, and - within the first five minutes - we will discover the florid doc examining a slide of his own semen (though how recently procured, and by what method, we are not told). Which means that when Prof Winston invites us huskily to "come with me", we ought to be a little wary.
Robert Peary, the man credited with first reaching the North Pole in 1910, looked strangely like Prof Winston. In Icemen (BBC2, Thursday), his great moustache and craggy features dominated the photographs of the various expeditions that he led in his struggle to reach this non- place.
But, unlike Winston, Peary was a rather nasty man, driven, fixated and jealous. He once spent four years in a place called Fort Conger - two sheds with snow inside them - having all his toes amputated and cheating on his wife with a nubile Eskimo woman, of whom a naughty Parisian-style photo survived. When, finally, he did get back to the States after conquering the Pole - or whatever you do with Poles - he found an old colleague called Cook had got there before him.
Or had he? The programmes showed why Cook couldn't have made it and was a fibber. Then explorer Wally Herbert argued that Peary probably didn't get to the Pole either. Which meant (though the programme didn't say so) that the first man to the North Pole may have been Mr Herbert himself. Where's Wally indeed.
None of the men in Deborah Moggach's steamy new family drama Close Relations (BBC1, Sunday) are called Wally, but they all ought to be. One is the racist family patriarch, who smokes and climbs ladders at the same time, and is clearly destined for an affair with a black nurse. Another is his son-in-law (married to one of three sisters), who is a creepy, slimy banker - so we know what to expect there - and a third is the unattractive adulterer who is having if off with a second sister, and will not leave his wife.
It is the latter who wins this week's Viagra award for the detumescent bedroom line, "I'm sorry," to which eight million viewers chorused (with the disappointed actress), "It doesn't matter." I am now seriously worried that if ever droop should descend, I will find myself reaching by default for this cliche. God grant me the strength and presence of mind to look down and say, in a charismatic voice "Come with me on a journey into my corpus cavernosa". There is an exception to this general male uselessness. Skirting the edges of the plot is the darkly handsome blacksmith. His name is Todd O'Connor, his chosen prey is young Imogen (the first sister's teenage daughter), and he comes out with things like "We are just animals - with our clothes on." So I bet he isn't going to have to say he's sorry.
By the way, sister number three is a lesbian who is brought to sexual life by a strident woman writer, given to driving round London in a safari Land Rover - a kind of cross between Jeanette Winterson and Karen Blixen (Out in Africa?). To this person I am indebted for a new insight as to how to get your novel published. What you do is wait outside a publisher's offices. When some strange woman comes along, you shove your manuscript into her arms and sod off again. Three weeks later you will be a world- famous author, able to intimidate whole festivals full of male publishers with your hands-in-pockets, sod-you brilliance. Bingo.
Oh, television! What a lot one can learn from it!
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