Charles Nevin: Who wants a perfect row of chompers, anyhow?

Would anyone have bothered to develop tomato soup if teeth had proved more up to it?
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The Independent Online

Over the weekend, along with the usual pressing matters of public importance and sway, I have been thinking about teeth. But please don't go away: I promise you it's not going to be one of those moving first-person accounts of searing pain and an invincibly cheerful orthodontist humming a medley from South Pacific above the scream of the drill and the smell of fear.

No, my eye was taken by a report about a Hollywood producer even more obsessed than most about stars having perfect teeth. Ben Affleck, Nicolas Cage, our own Clive Owen: all evenly, dazzlingly, pingingly improved. And this, besides giving me the excuse to rehearse that splendid panto line - "your teeth are like stars, they come out at night" - prompted a small twinge of sympathy and regret for imperfect teeth.

Now, whatever your view on cosmetic improvement, you cannot deny that there are unintended consequences, and by that I don't just mean Pete Burns. Teeth are a particularly good case in point. How much poorer would this very same gleaming world of entertainment be and have been, for example, without the contributions of such as George Formby, Terry-Thomas, Joyce Grenfell, Ken Dodd, and Bernie Winters?

I, for one, would be robbed of the story of Bernie's appearance at the Glasgow Empire with his brother Mike, who opened and continued the act in an unbroken silence from that famously discerning audience - a silence that ended only when the curtains opened to reveal Bernie with his famously toothy smile, provoking this from a single Glaswegian voice: "Christ, there's two of them.

Ah, yes, happy days. But there are wider implications. Would anyone have bothered to develop one of our greatest glories, tomato soup, if teeth had proved more up to it? Would you prefer the Mona Lisa with a grin? Of course not: weak upper anterior, tough bit of pizza crust, and the enigmatic smile is born. For which we give thanks, as we should for the imperfect sets of our forebears which have been responsible for so many grave, affecting photographs rather than the epiglottal offerings we have to put up with today.

Consider, too, the British. What do you think is reponsible for that stiff upper lip, that winning diffidence? Is it, do you think, a coincidence that the loss of empire and crisis of national identity occurred at the same time as a general improvement in dental provision? How much is the exotic, beguiling attraction of the unfamiliar smile to blame for the excesses and consequences of the Permissive Sixties? Quite. Still, the Government and the NHS are now working on that, too.

The Americans, of course, famously sneer at "British Teeth", but I would remind them that Edward Cope (1840-97), American palaeontologist, escaped the lethal intentions of unfriendly natives by taking out his false teeth and letting them have a look, something you simply can't do with capped ones. George Washington, too, as it happens, had falsies adapted from donkey teeth, but that's now out of fashion.

The guiding impulse today is towards a bland sameness, when you might expect our supposedly ever-increasing sophistication to be reflected in an appreciation of difference. You might have noticed too, that - despite all our progress - we still seem to need hair length as a gender indicator (pace/non pace Pete, who in several respects, at least, is further evolved).

It's about honesty, isn't it? We examine the exterior for a clue to the interior. Shakespeare might have said there was "no art to find the mind's construction in the face", but he was either being ironic or unhappy with that portrait of himself (the plumpish, balding one, sans teeth, naturally) which is clearly of the school of Mr Rolffe Harrys.

But perhaps we shouldn't look to actors, assumers of identity, for honesty. I remember watching Liza Minnelli on stage at a tribute to Gene Kelly, with the great man present. Liza pointed to the large photograph of Gene behind her, and to the small scar on his face, which, she said, Gene had always been too honest to cover up. And that summed up Gene, she said: honesty. The audience applauded loudly, and the camera went on to Gene, who sat there smiling modestly, in his toupee.

Enough. We should be proud to bear all our marks of distinction. And it is in this connection that, unusually, I would like to pay tribute to a politician. For those who saw it, and it has been widely noticed, George Galloway's minimally contoured appearance in a very tight red leotard on Celebrity Big Brother will live long as an act of bravery fit to match that of Mike and Bernie Winters. Sometimes it's the smallest things that have the biggest impact, and George's have inspired me to be equally revealing and confess that, when I was young and biddable, I too had a bit of teeth-capping. There, that's better.

And now I will leave you with another stirring example, a vendor of Blackpool rock I once encountered on the front. Had, I wondered, "all this health business" affected his sales? "It's more popular!" he cried. "Full of lots of good stuff like glucose!" Then, with ado, he leant forward and bared his teeth. "Look at these," he declared with pride, "All my own!" And they clearly were, uneven, tending more to butter than milk in shade, and unique. Marvellous.

Truly, as the psalmist had it, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.