What kind of sick person would want to watch The Truth About Lesbian Sex?
Wasted and Undercover Cops (both on Channel 4) are good examples of two very different documentary styles. Wasted is a series of four films by Pamela Gordon about those referred to nowadays as ‘the socially excluded’.
The opening film last Monday was a portrait of some London prostitutes, seen wasting away in their squat rather than holding court in brothels. At times it looked like a caricature of the ‘depressing documentary’, with gloomy music and lingering shots of puddles.
Commentary was restricted to a few captions appearing silent movie-style between scenes. Otherwise the talking was left to the subjects, who seemed to spend most of their time (when not drugged senseless) arguing with one another and then making up again. Stacey, the main subject, had a catchphrase: ‘I’m no lost cause’, which she repeated over the puddle shots, as well as reciting her poor-but-sparky poems. The lack of narrative in documentaries can be frustrating, except that the point of this film was that Stacey’s life has no narrative.
Next week’s Wasted (Sunday at 9pm) is more polemical, though again the only explicit commentary comes from the subject herself. Susie is a single mother living on a miserable housing estate in Gateshead. The documentary was filmed during last year’s general election campaign, and it illustrates the gap between the world of politics and the lives of many (non-practising) voters.
If Wasted’s credo is ‘Don’t tell, show’, Undercover Cops (Tuesdays at 10pm) is basically a series of great pub stories. Four former members of SO10, Scotland Yard’s undercover unit, talk about their work as we watch naff reconstructions of the events described. Last week, SO10’s first black officer told how he ballsed up his first drug-buying operation and was convinced that furious Flying Squad officers were going to shoot him. But SO10 needed people who didn’t look like bobbies: blacks, longhairs, men with earrings and other criminal types all got a career break when undercover work took off in the early 1980s, driven largely by the booming drugs business.
Undercover policing isn’t all about dodgy deals in snooker halls, though. The programme also introduced us to a white-collar crime specialist who modelled his persona on a fraudster acquaintance, and a Vietnam veteran who infiltrated the world of art crime. (The stories we don’t hear sound even better than the ones we do.) But the saloon-bar raconteur prize goes to the leary geezer who slept with the model who set up his deal before calling in the drugs squad. And not a puddle in sight.
Those come next week, when we find out about the downside of undercover work. Apparently the schizophrenic lifestyle poses a threat to one’s sanity. Speaking of which, what kind of sick person would want to watch The Truth About Lesbian Sex (Channel 4, Monday at 10.35pm)? Not, of course, that there is anything wrong with lesbianism, but the trailers for this have hardly appealed to our higher faculties. Apparently, both men and women regularly fantasise about lesbian sex, and the programme is supposed to put us right.
I suppose the idea is to teach those of us who have daydreams about girly pillow fights that there is more to it than that. (When I say ‘those of us’, I am of course employing a journalistic convention.) Naturally, the ‘don’t tell, show’ credo doesn’t quite hold up for this programme, which is a relief. Maybe it’s terribly conservative of me to think that the secrets of lesbianism are none of my business. But I suppose I’m afraid that if I find out the truth about lesbians, then lesbians will want to know the truth about me.
And there are some things that should never be shown on television.
Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
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