The reality show that supersizes on cruelty
Channel 4’s Supersize vs Superskinny turns both fat and thin people into freakshow-style figures of horror.
I recently gave up smoking, after more than 15 years of addiction. I say ‘gave up’, but I think ‘give in’ is more honest. I can’t smoke at work, home or inside any pub or restaurant in the whole of Britain; and since I now have a daughter, I could not bear the thought of her coming home from school with the wild-eyed look of the recently indoctrinated, telling me that smoking is an eco-crime (1).
As a result I have ballooned in weight, and learned the other day that I am only four pounds lighter than Homer Simpson. Still, that’s nothing compared to Wayne Rutter, who at 28 stone nine pounds is fatter than Homer even in the episode where he deliberately becomes obese to qualify for disability benefit.
Wayne was the star of the penultimate episode of Supersize vs Superskinny (2), a body obsession show presented by Anna Richardson (who I seem to remember being groped a while back by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and TV’s Dr Christian Jessen. One of many Channel 4 shows that deals with people whose bodies are at the extreme end of the spectrum, S vs S brings these extremists together in the hope that moderation might follow (a strategy that has never worked in politics).
Wayne is truly a fascinating specimen. When Martin, a nine-stone former jockey who hasn’t eaten potatoes in 15 years, first casts his eyes on him he looks genuinely nervous, like a European explorer who has discovered a new tribe of grossly overweight working-class northerners.
Wayne gets through 5,500 calories a day, more than twice the recommended intake, and his regime includes an evening meal of curry, chips and rice, washed down with 10 pints of cider. His daily intake, poured into a huge funnel, looks grotesque. Then again, pour any combination of food together and it’s going to look disgusting, especially when it’s washed down with nine litres of coffee and dozens of cigarettes (Martin is a smoker, much to the doctor’s disgust, who is no doubt wondering which one of these two low lives he’d shoot if he only had one bullet left).
Over in LA, Anna meets women who look like they’ve hobbled out of a Soviet prisoner of war camp, but still claim to be ‘self-conscious’ about their weight. She also meets a group of mums who work out with prams (that’s all the rage in my part of north London as well), and a self-styled ‘super-trainer’, all of which proves that, despite all our pre-conceptions of it as a land of moderation and modesty, California actually has quite a lot of shrill, body-obsessed nut jobs.
Cruelty is a staple factor of this genre and so Martin and Wayne swap meals, and Wayne, naturally having no sense of deferred gratification, gobbles his puny dish in three seconds, leaving him to sit there while Martin delicately picks at his carb-mountain.
‘Thoughts are running through my head’, Wayne says in a dizzy sweat, and I realise I’m actually watching someone having lard DTs.
So what’s at the heart of Britain’s weight problem? Divorce, maybe? Who knows? Wayne used to be normal – in fact he was a bright, handsome boy, until (cue sad music) his parents separated and he turned into the monstrosity we see before us. The subsequent montage of his face is like one of those drug addict slide shows put out to warn kids (3), except he gets fatter rather than skinnier. All rather sad, but I don’t think Wayne was under the illusion he was shipshape, health-wise, before the programme was made.
Incredibly enough, the working-class used to be too thin, and it was their lack of carbohydrate intake that worried the great and the good. That these untermensch survived to spawn our modern race of supersized-men is partly down to those two titans of nineteenth century politics, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, subject of a 90-minute documentary called Clash of the Titans: Gladstone and Disraeli on BBC4 (a channel that makes Channel 4 rather obsolete).
My historic understanding of ‘the People’s William’ and ‘Dizzy’ is of two characters from a Beano strip. Gladstone was right about almost everything, he pursued a moral foreign policy that sought to rescue Christians from the dreaded Turks, he helped the poor, and was an all-round do-gooding liberal; Disraeli was a cynic and a royal arselicker who painted half of Africa pink and seduced the working-class into become Tories; yet somehow everyone always ends up liking the old rascal.
Even Gladstone’s colleagues in the Liberal Party once tried to throw him out of a window in Pall Mall. (Good. What this country needs is more political defenestrations – it’s the Czechs’ one great contribution to European politics.) Perhaps it was because Gladstone, an upper-middle class Tory whose family made their money in slaves, became, in his mid-forties, a born-again liberal, which along with his religious mania made him unbearable company. ‘Gladstone and God were a partnership’, as talking head Roy Hattersley pointed out. (Well, better Hattersley than Neil Kinnock.)
It was this religious mania that made him trample the streets at night ‘saving’ prostitutes, even when he was prime minister. Maybe this was a bit odd, but it’s also probably a sign of our society’s unhealthy prurience that, despite all his achievements, we best remember Gladstone for his weird midnight strolls around the West End.
Even Huw Edwards, a heavyweight (sort of) presenter, puts on a strangely camp inflection when he asks if Gladstone was saving their souls or into ‘a different type of missionary activity’. Otherwise my only complaint is that it was too short – by the time it came to Ireland, the most important issue of Gladstone’s life, they had run out of time. How ironic, students of Irish history will chuckle, a documentary on Gladstone being filibustered.
Still, they were both great men, and Gladstone was the one man who could have saved Ireland from becoming the tragedy it did. One crankish idea I have is that, if they ever get around to building a tunnel between Britain and Ireland, they name it the Gladstone Tunnel.
It’s foolish to speculate on dead politicians’ attitudes to modern life, but I can say for certain that Gladstone would have disapproved of supersized Wayne, and ordered some sort of pie and chips tax to deal with the problem. Disraeli, with a rise of his wicked eyebrow, would have just smiled and winked.
Ed West is features editor at the Catholic Herald. See his website here. His brother, spiked TV columnist Patrick West, is away.
(1) Toddlers told to stop parents smoking in ‘sinister’ move by health service, Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2009
(2) Supersize vs Superskinny – Series 2, Episode 6, Channel 4
(3) In pictures: Face of addiction, BBC News, 2 November 2004