TELEVISION; Sugar and spice and not very nice

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
BBC2's Under the Sun ferrets out the weird and wonderful around the world, from witch-sniffing in South Africa to the dating habits of sexually repressed Singaporean students. But nothing so far has been as outlandish as this week's Painted Babies, a piercing look at infant beauty contests in the southern states of America. These are run and attended by people whose understanding of life has become fatally bound up with a taste for sequins, whose notion of culture is to suck dry any passing pop song, and whose image of childhood innocence is apparently based on Betty Boop cartoons. These people believe that as long as you have big eyes and a suggestive waddle, your future is secure.

Most parents end up exploiting their children in one way or another. But you try not to. One thing to avoid, you might think, is forcing your five-year-old daughter to model swimsuits by prancing across a stage, in return for cash prizes, trips to the Bahamas, or a free car. But the mother of Brooke, the most repulsive child there and inevitably the one who was crowned Supreme Queen, claims it's all for Brooke's sake, "teaching her things she can use all her life". Yeah, if she's planning to be a bimbo, a sullen one at that. It's certainly hard to see how the car or the cruise will help pay for her university education.

The poor kid is a hollow shell. The only emotion she's uninhibited about is irritation, but usually she's smiling through gritted plastic teeth. These teeth were not a good idea. They were fitted by the dentist to cover up the fact that she's lost three top teeth. She keeps snapping them out of place to play with them in her mouth, and when they're in they make her look like an undersized adult with a swollen head. Which I guess is what she is. Worst of all is when she sings - for which she's been trained in Nashville. A tuneless, toneless bleating, accompanied by eyelash-flutterings and a sultry stalk across the stage, to the huge delight of her mother and grandmother (three generations of bleached blonde hair!); her mother responds with parrot-like movements of the neck, as if she hasn't got her head screwed on quite right. Which she hasn't.

Of course you wanted the other one, Asia, to win - whatever good it would do her. Her warbling was a fraction less objectionable, her smile more convincing, and her parents still seemed sane (although they admitted to being addicted to pageants). There was hope here, unlike the empty world of the dead-eyed Brooke. The film caught every telling nuance of the fight: parental displeasure, demoralised kids, the ghoulish judges, even a mother who hands her child some chewing-gum straight from her mouth. The child obediently pops it into her own - a perfect analogy for all the rest of the crap these innocents are being fed.

Video Nation (BBC2) this week offered wry and touching examples of the British at play. There was a handsome surfer with a ring in his nose, a bungee-jumper upside-down, a bore with a pink 1950s car, and the moving attempts of a young woman to ride a horse, despite being paralysed. "Doing this has highlighted just how disabled I am," she says tearfully, but there's something noble about the achievement. Other leisure activities have less purpose (which is what men like most about leisure activities). Best of all was a policeman utterly consumed by golf. His wife, while dealing with tomatoes in the kitchen she seemed to share with the rest of the British population (the same dreary pine cabinets were everywhere), described his condition thus: "When he's not working he wants to play golf. When he's not playing golf he talks about golf. When he's not talking about or playing golf, he watches it on television. When he's not watching it, talking about it or playing it, he reads about it in a magazine that I, stupidly enough, buy him every month."

Annie's Bar (C4) was political drama at its most anodyne. The presence of Edwina Currie seemed to guarantee that it would be embarrassing. The dashing young Dashwood, an improbable Tory MP, has won his seat as a result of the Lib Dem candidate's unfortunate hit-and-run episode. The whole House echoes Dashwood's greenness, with green walls, green carpet, and green benches of a slightly more tasteful hue than they are in real life. It's run like a boys' boarding-school, but after The Politician's Wife these guys seemed frightfully well-behaved. As soap, it's latherless; as satire it's tame enough to show at Buckingham Palace tea-parties - though the line "She has provided an opening for any number of upright young members" might cause a little stir. It can only be saved now by Glenda Jackson.

Okay, you've got to be some kind of a fool to let any man near your womb with a scalpel, but still you don't expect a surgeon to remove organs that you haven't agreed upon. Dispatches' (C4) investigation into the use of hysterectomy to solve all sorts of problems, from painful periods to fibroids, discovered a gynaecologist who not only removed a woman's ovaries without prior consent during a hysterectomy, but also failed to inform her of the fact or offer any explanation until she queried her hospital bill. John Studd, a surgeon at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, was successfully sued for battery and negligence by the woman, who now has to have painful hormone implants every six months.

Studd has a real thing about ovaries. He calls them "silent killers" and recommends their routine removal in middle-aged women. He even says that if testicular cancer were as common as ovarian, and male HRT as effective as female, he'd be first in the queue to have his balls cut off. (This sounded like an irresistible invitation to the mutilated patient, who'd probably leap at the chance to perform the operation.) Yet, according to Professor Klim McPherson, if all women over 40 had their ovaries out (thereby eradicating ovarian cancer), they would only live on average an extra four-and-a-half days (which would just about cover the time taken up with popping HRT pills for the rest of their lives).

Hysterectomies are on the increase, and class-related: women without any further education are 14 times more likely to have one. And all because, one suspects, an awful lot of doctors would rather whip out the whole reproductive system than partake in a lengthy discussion with a patient about menstruation. Seventy-five per cent of hysterectomies are done, apparently, on account of "heavy" periods, a symptom which, as GP Sally Hope pointed out, is based on the patient's subjective assessment and can't be verified scientifically. If women had a less negative body image, they might save themselves a lot of life-threatening abdominal surgery - most of the wombs we discard each year were just doing their job.

The evidence presented here, of a whimsical and unpredictable attitude amongst doctors nationwide to hysterectomy - varying from county to county - added up to the clearest proof of womb envy I've yet seen. As it covered the territory, the programme reached an emotional peak of its own, a welcome relief from the usual cool stance of documentaries. I felt rather hysterical myself.

Comments