There is a constituency that finds pleasure in watching other people’s sorrow, and I have to admit I belong to it, though I hate that trait in myself. If it were just the fact that sadness is often caused by an interesting, dramatic event, I wouldn’t mind. Instead, you watch it – say it’s somebody else trying to comfort their postoperative toddler. you summon up all that they are going through, the suffering and impotence and desperation. Then bosh, credits roll; it’s not your kid, it’s their kid. Phew. Anyone fancy some Doritos?
It is so obnoxious, and what is more obnoxious still is that people such as Nho, whose son Viet has bilateral facial clefts, have to suffer this smug scrutiny because … well, for whatever reason. On the Baby with a new Face – Extraordinary People (Channel 5), she was probably given a choice, but she might on some level have felt that the free treatment of this crack team of surgeons depended on letting in the cameras. I don’t know why lead surgeon Niall Kirkpatrick let it happen; possibly he is really proud of his work, and he does seem tremendously good at it.
Some people think the high level of disfigurement in children in Vietnam is a legacy of the Americans’ use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. “Some people think …”, programmes such as this always say, whenever they are about to say anything more controversial than “dogs are cute” or “children mean a lot to their parents”. It bestows a sceptical air on even the most well-established ideas. I would like to see it replaced with “most people think”, or “some people think, and those who don’t, it’s because they’re stupid”.
There is another constituency, one that loves to watch gore; I’m not in that one, and I don’t really get it. I had to look away for all the scalpel-through-tissue action, so for at least half of it, all I got was Natascha McElhone’s narration: “Then they release the lower eyelid sections and bring them together. next, they create the right corner of the mouth. Finally, they can stitch all the pieces together.” It was perplexingly precise, as though she were making a teaching video for people who themselves might be called on to reconstruct a face.
Up against an experience that left me despising Channel Five, myself and warmongers in general, Marco Pierre White didn’t stand a chance for Worst Programme of the Night, though never let it be said that he doesn’t try. Kitchen Wars (Channel 5) features pairs of restaurateurs, up against the clock (sort of … they have four hours to prep, so it is not exactly Ready Steady Cook) to feed some people around tables in a characterless studio. Marco is so overbaked, his pauses so pregnant, his Anthony Hopkins impression so unwarranted, his remarks so inane, that the contestants can’t really work out how to react. you will recall from the Great British Bake Off that real people, with a passion, under pressure, can be quite moving and sweet and even – I’m thinking of the seminal croquembouche episode – enlightening. however, opposite this great ham, the contestants can’t do “normal”. They would feel as though they had walked into the wrong play. So they are rendered pretty well mute – they are just meat in the room, to showcase Marco’s charisma, which he has in homeopathic quantities.
The meals are finally brought out, to a waiting crowd that makes sour remarks, revelling in its own ignorance. “There’s a lot of flavours, I’m not sure that I can identify any of them,” says a female diner. Come on. If you can put something in your mouth and not recognise anything, maybe you should have a KFC (no offence to the Colonel) and go and criticise something else.
That’s partly why it doesn’t function as entertainment, the unacknowledged injustice of this random arbitration. you want to root for some people against other people; it doesn’t work when you’re rooting for all the participants, against the entire production team. It doesn’t function as a competition because there is no constant: they all serve different food to different people. the only still point is Marco, and the only reliable element of his personality is this vaudeville cantankerousness.
He keeps fondling a sharp knife, as if to underline his raw sexuality. It’s like that episode of Friends where Monica tries a knife-wielding-qua-sexual-display and chops off Chandler’s toe. even the most bizarre, unsuccessful elements of this show are knock-offs.