Editor-At-Large: If you prefer shopping to thinking, get a wife

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The Independent Online

What is a wife? A wife is a television scheduling device, pure and simple. In today's quest for ratings-building fodder, the role of the wife looms large. Try watching Wife Swap (Channel 4), Footballers' Wives and Essex Wives (both ITV), and at the end of it you realise that there's no point in coming out with phrases such as "I didn't realise things had sunk to this level" because that im-plies there is a level of quality operating in mainstream television to sink below.

What is a wife? A wife is a television scheduling device, pure and simple. In today's quest for ratings-building fodder, the role of the wife looms large. Try watching Wife Swap (Channel 4), Footballers' Wives and Essex Wives (both ITV), and at the end of it you realise that there's no point in coming out with phrases such as "I didn't realise things had sunk to this level" because that im-plies there is a level of quality operating in mainstream television to sink below.

Don't tell me Footballers' Wives is satire, black comedy or brilliant parody. It's cartoon-strip drama for people who prefer shopping to thinking, who proudly admit that they don't read books, people for whom two-syllable words present a conversational hurdle. Essex Wives represents the mindless piffle to which the once-distinguished art of British documentary making has evolved. Coming from the company that once gave us the fine factual series The London Programme, presented by Trevor Phillips, Essex Wives is about as cutting-edge as a plate of tapioca. Wife Swap is a toe-curling exercise in humiliation for all concerned.

But the real point is not that TV's got dumber, but that it's now pitched shamelessly at the female audience. We have more women running television than ever before: Jana Bennett, director of television at the BBC, female channel controllers of BBC1 and BBC2, and Dawn Airey has moved from Channel 5 to run Sky. The result is, that just as once men ruled the control set on Saturday nights, from Match of the Day to Parkie fawning over ageing male superstars, today women have assumed that power over whole swathes of prime-time viewing. Now, their male counterparts at Channel 4 and ITV have also latched on to the power of the female audience. I should be thrilled, but I am thoroughly depressed. No matter that the stars of Dr Zhivago and Daniel Deronda were gorgeous babes barely out of their teens snogging wet leading men as classics got the Mills & Boon treatment; now Wednesday nights are pitched shamelessly at the television equivalent of the female Asda shopper. Like an economy pack of chicken nuggets or oven-ready chips, these programmes look great, are utterly bland and you forget everything about them an hour later. In Footballers' Wives everybody is horrible to everyone else, but their hair always looks perfectly ironed. Even the men have hairstyles that make major fashion statements. The characters' names, from Chardonnay to Jason, sum up so much of what is coarse and repulsive about Britain today. Yes, I'm a well-educated snob and proud of it. But at least this is drama, and actors are being paid to enact this threadbare plot. A diploma in manicuring and cuticle management would probably have been more useful at the auditions than an Equity card.

In Essex Wives and Wife Swap, real women have been persuaded by programme-makers (many of them female) to let themselves be portrayed as brainless. I have never heard lines uttered in conversation like those in Essex Wives. It smacks of rehearsal and prompting – with the narrator, Neil Stuke, coming out with such corkers as "they seek fulfilment in every area of their lives". Lorraine, whose husband works in the Middle East to keep her in Essex luxury, spends a fortune on Versace tiles for her bathroom and is a confirmed shopaholic. But what is so loathsome is the way the programme-makers patronise and belittle all the women they feature. These are not the most educated or subtle group of people, but they deserve fairer treatment.

Sue, for example, employs 16 people but we focus on the evening her 11-year-old son goes to his school disco wearing Versace jeans. Fiona can't be bothered chatting men up and just asks each one she encounters at the local disco, "Are you a millionaire yet?", before moving on. By the way, I doubt very much that many unattached captains of industry or recording superstars would choose Buckhurst Hill on a Friday night to search for Miss Right. Although the programme pretends to celebrate these women's drive and ambition, it actually derides them.

In Wife Swap, Kate and Tracy spend two weeks in each other's homes – one with six children and one with a single spoilt little girl. The documentary ends in an unpleasant slanging match between the two women about parenting styles and cleanliness.

Using women to entice more women into viewing is fine. But middle-class, educated telly people have a more insidious agenda. It's no surprise that BBC1 transmits David Attenborough's The Life of Mammals at the same time as Footballers' Wives. Both represent exercises in anthropology. But, unlike polar bears or gibbons, television wives are continually being shown as genetic failures: common, uncultured mammals who are lousy at doing drugs, confused about how to bring up kids, tasteless at decorating and useless at conducting long-term relationships. I suppose all this justifies the Government's call for classes in parenting. In the meantime women should reach for the off switch – this is as pernicious as porn.

Toxined out

The most over-used word this month is toxin. Not a day passes without a writer urging us to rid ourselves of the "toxins" that built up over the festive season. Toxins, like "stress", are a 21st-century phenomenon. If I could have a pound for every toxin I consumed in the run-up to New Year's Eve (including my birthday) that massive credit-card bill that's just arrived wouldn't represent any problem. In the meantime I've shamelessly followed the herd and given up alcohol from 3.30am on New Year's Day. How many toxins have I flushed out over the past 25 days? In my quest for sugar substitutes I purchased a Jane Asher Lemon Drizzle Cake mix two weeks running. Why is she so thin when she's got major shelf space stacked with her fattening cake mixes in every superstore? This is the kind of conundrum we toxin-ridders are obsessed with. Meanwhile I've had a 25-day headache as my toxins reluctantly leave my body, and if I drink another carton of Marks & Sparks carrot juice ("with a hint of ginger") I shall turn into Geri Halliwell. How did we function before toxins were identified?

Crisis at English National Opera: a third of the chorus is to be sacked and there's to be a massive bail-out from the Government. None of this is mentioned in the newsletter I've just received from Emily Stubbs, the chief fundraiser. I'm all in favour of change – so I hope that donations do flood in to bridge the £3.5m gap (£23m from public funds and £14.5m from private donations has already been raised towards costs of £41m) to enable the Coliseum to be rebuilt. Let's also hope that a new centre of production excellence ensues that harnesses our talented fashion designers, architects and artists. There's no excuse to shop else-where when this country is a world leader in so many fields. I hope ENO can bereinvented and revitalised without staging second- division stuff from Europe, just because it's controversial. Why haven't they asked Marc Quinn or Chris Ofili to design an opera?

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