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Harriet Walker: Glossiness is next to emptiness

A A Gill’s mistake is to class Mary Beard in with his own tribe, whose gloss speaks for them

It's a strange paradox given television's obsession with reality programmes that its presenters have risen to ever glossier, preternaturally groomed heights. There are no spots, no snaggle-teeth, no bushy eyebrows in broadcasting. The medium most suited to showing us life complete with the proverbial warts and all is the one that requires its protagonists to wax, buff, bouff and crimp more than any other.

Perhaps it's so we can more easily separate the professionals from the wild-haired plebs who make it on to Big Brother every so often. Or perhaps it's because those professionals can't bear the idea of us seeing what they really look like.

But there's a difference between personal standards and ideology. Do TV presenters have a duty to look good on screen? It depends what they're talking about, doesn't it? Should someone turn up to commentate on Strictly Come Dancing in last night's make-up and cardigan covered in egg, no doubt the hi-shine, sequin-obsessed diehards would be a little put out.

It's a point that critic A A Gill raised last weekend when he remarked on the academic Mary Beard's appearance during her latest series on the lives of the Romans. "If you are going to invite yourself into the front rooms of the living," he wrote of Beard, "then you need to make an effort."

Let's just skip the fact that any man suggesting a woman ought to scrub up should be put to death by hair-straightening, and focus on what he actually means. Gill makes it sound like Mary Beard is striding into our sitting rooms, lashing us to the sofa and making us listen to her – in which case, my first reaction still would not be to ask her to brush her hair. I would shut up and take notes, actually. Having attended lectures by Beard at university, I can attest she's the most charismatic, warm and humorous person to have ever spoken about people who have been dead for a bajillion years and a language that nobody speaks any more.

And that is where Gill has gone wrong. He's classed Mary Beard in with his own tribe, whose gloss speaks for them and whose socialising relies on the smug shine of sophistication and strenuous cleansing. I've been to parties with these people, and they're much less fun than the ones where everyone looks a bit bedraggled but is fascinating and makes you laugh. That's what I want from telly. And I don't think I'm alone. The great scheduling divide these days seems to be between things like The Only Way Is Essex, whose players strut and fret in tiny clothes and enormous hair only to impart absolutely nothing of any interest, and programming with more substance and a lot less hairspray.

Television is not so different from real life then – in that those who take longest to get ready are quite often the ones you wish you hadn't invited into your sitting room.