Simon Hoggart

Setting the tone

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The BBC has been heavily criticised for its coverage of the Jubilee flotilla, and the tone was incredibly annoying. All those smiley celebrities pretending to enjoy themselves! The tabloids, those for whom the Beeb can never do anything right, would have been just as mean if the treatment had been sombre and serious. ‘And we see a boat, followed by a barge, and next to that, another boat. And Her Majesty is waving, now to the crowds on the embankment, now to the next boat…’ The queue of vessels was a feeble idea, the rain made it worse and there was nothing anyone could have done. Bagehot himself would have been reduced to burbling about souvenir sick bags. And the only thing to say about the Monday night concert was, thank heavens they didn’t bring on Engelbert Humperdinck.

But the corporation can still do a good documentary, better than almost anyone else, really. Channel 4 can’t see a received truth without hitting it over the head — Captain Bligh was a humanitarian, the Few were whimpering cowards — but the BBC still tries to get it right, for the most part. Take The Men Who Made Us Fat (BBC2, Thursday) presented by Jacques Peretti. Apparently the average Briton has put on three stone over the past half-century turning us into a nation of lardbuckets to rival the US, home of the villain in the first episode. He was Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, who is best remembered for having to resign after saying to journalists that what black men wanted was ‘tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit’. That was a disgraceful and racist slur, not least against white men, most of whom would be happy with exactly the same.

It was Butz who encouraged the vast production of corn syrup, which was cheaper than sugar, and whose fat content left a pleasing residue on the palate, making possible the creation of enormous quantities of fattening, mouth-pleasing rubbish with scant nutritional value, which can be sold not just for meals but also all through the day. The people who produce chocolate bars, crisps, and burgers that look like patties of grey slime in a Kleenex tissue bun are little better than drug dealers hanging round outside school gates. Crisp, clear, to the point — everything the Jubilee coverage wasn’t.

I wanted to like Morgan Matthews’s film Britain In a Day (BBC2, Monday) more than I actually did. It was a nice idea: to gather more than 11,000 clips of self-filmed material about ordinary people and their lives. It was also cheap, though the editing must have needed endless manpower. And I liked the way the programme didn’t start as it would have done in America, with a farmer striding at dawn into a field of golden wheat, happy kids scrambling on to a school bus, a river of people flowing through Manhattan. This being Britain, the day began with a drunk saying he was scared of being robbed, a dying man, and an inspector describing some of the things left behind on all-night buses, which I won’t repeat.

So it was real reality television, as opposed to unreal ‘reality’ television, in which strangers are put into a situation in the hope that they will either hate each other or have sex. There were lifeboatpersons, dairy farmers, loving families at home, rather too many loonies — a psychic séance, someone who believes we’re descended from spacemen, tree-huggers and a bunch of protesters of ironclad self-righteousness. There were also poignant moments — the woman throwing the ashes of her pet dog into the sea, followed by his favourite stick, just before another woman solemnly informed us, ‘We’ve just buried a bumblebee this morning.’ My reservation was that it didn’t really hang together. We swerved from the workaday to the bizarre, from the heart-warming to the disgusting, so the result was less a portrait of Britain than a weird collage, John Constable meets the Chapman brothers.

In Twilight of the Porn Stars (BBC2, Sunday) Louis Theroux went back to the San Fernando Valley 15 years after he’d made a film about porn there. He was determined to find wrecked lives, drugs, misery, shattered relationships and a nightmarish sense of all-pervading shame. But he didn’t. In spite of his best efforts, the people he encountered seemed to be well-balanced, cheerful and with much professional pride. The notion that porn is a dying industry, like osier-weaving or quill pen manufacture, is also contradicted elsewhere — online porn has actually increased demand for the paid product. But of course it would never have done for Theroux to come back saying, ‘Hey, these guys have a great life!’ But I really loved the middle-aged Englishwoman who works in a porn agency — very sharp, very unsceptical, utterly unCalifornian.