The Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald probably wasn't thinking about the Big Society when he declared in the 1920s: "A nation of weaklings and slaggards can never uphold democratic institutions." But as we trudge off to the gym, we can't really blame the old Prime Beef Minister (no relation to Ronald). He had no idea how awful we would all look in lycra, and wasn't to know it would all come to a sticky end.
Vests and Leotards: The Great British Work-Out (BBC4, Thursday) displayed the various heinous crimes against fashion perpetrated by the keep-fit industry – just another way of making us feel guilty? – but there were more innocent days: we were shown folk exercising on pogo sticks wearing suits and smoking cigarettes, while one of the more bizarre exercises devised in the Thirties was "nibbling the braid", which involved inching a piece of string towards you using your toes. It didn't look like much but it's surely better for you than nibbling on chocolate cake.
Mass displays of physical jerks became popular in Britain at the same time as they were espoused elsewhere in Europe in much darker circumstances. Everyone knows that PE teachers are complete fascists but Mussolini went too far.
In Blighty, the superbly named Sir Robert Lucas Lucas-Tooth pumped money into the Physical Training industry – no doubt he was a great nibbler – and the Women's League of Health and Beauty was formed by Lady Prunella Stack, "Britain's first perfect woman". They flounced around like fairies, making believe it was doing them some good in a weird premonition of the lycra queen herself, Kate Bush. But it's easy to be glib and forget that such activity was crucial in the days before the NHS. If you didn't take care of yourself, no one else was going to do it for you.
These days it comes as a shock to the system to remember that until the gym craze took off, keep-fit was a woman's thing. As the obligatory snide Geordie narrator said: "It was the only way to see a woman in her pants – even your wife." Blokes were all huffy about it as they puffed on their fags and pipes but exercise gave women a new social outlet as well. They didn't actually need to get fitter because all the housework they had to do kept them in trim.
What this amusing documentary didn't mention is that sport was largely a male preserve until recently, even if all the smoking probably didn't help preserve them. There's a lot of talk of cakes in the show, and the keep-fit craze allowed British women to bake their cake and eat it.
* Talking of which, The Great British Menu (BBC2) is yet another Masterchef spin-off in which chefs compete for the privilege of cooking dinner for legendary British athletes, "taking inspiration from our record Olympians, pushing themselves to their physical and mental limits." Any comparison of a cook sweating over a hot stove with, say, the training regime of a Steve Redgrave clearly identifies this offering as an early example of Olympic over-indulgence.
There's a lot of waffle about gold medals and Alan Murchison created one for his desert using chocolate, instant coffee and, er, olives. It didn't taste very nice. At this rate, not only will we be heartily sick of the Olympics before they even start, but we'll be a whole lot fatter too.
- More about: