A freakshow dressed up as documentary

Embarrassing Bodies is only a symptom of the deeper disease of dumbing down that now afflicts Channel 4.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

Channel 4 warned viewers that last Wednesday’s Embarrassing Bodies would include ‘intimate examinations, full-frontal nudity and surgical procedures’. Presumably, Channel 4 issued such a warning with a view to titillate, much in the way that news bulletins which issue the disclaimer ‘the following report has some disturbing images’ always have you glued to the telly.

I appreciate that it has become a cliché to say that Channel 4 has lost its way, but it is worth repeating because Embarrassing Bodies epitomises just how awful and dishonest it has become. Ostensibly this is a roving health show, like a medical equivalent of Watchdog, in which members of the public consult the presenters, Dr Christian Jessen and Dr Pixie McKenna, about their various ailments. But in true Channel 4 fashion, Embarrassing Bodies is a freakshow masquerading as a documentary.

This week’s episode – the first of the new series – was utterly puerile and prurient (1). It began with a woman called Rebecca, who bemoaned how one of her breasts was bigger than the other. Naturally, a proper scientific programme would have pointed out that the human anatomy is naturally asymmetrical, but Channel 4 was not interested in this, because it is more concerned with showing boobies and pretending it is all done in the name of medicine.

Then there was Mark, who was bereft of semen. This was followed by a woman who, by her own admission, had a ‘large vagina’, and then accounts of breast surgery, constipation, heavy periods and endless stories of incontinence. This was literally lavatory humour. I couldn’t tell whether it was a documentary or a spoof. Has Channel 4 been taken over by the makers of Viz comic? Was this Dirty Sanchez in disguise?

Admittedly, it is difficult to take the documentary genre seriously these days, as it has been satirised so well ever since This Is Spinal Tap came to the big screen in 1984. Recent documentary parodies include The Larry Sanders Show and The Office. The boundaries between reality and parody have been blurred, so it didn’t help that the narrator of Embarrassing Bodies was Ashley Jensen of Extras fame (created by The Office‘s Ricky Gervais). Her irreverent and frankly flippant tone when talking about people with serious incontinence problems made you think that she was, pardon the pun, just taking the piss.

But we shouldn’t only blame Channel 4, for members of the public are willing participants in this dumbing down of television. If you have an ailment, why not just go to your doctor, rather than go on TV? I suppose it’s the same reason why so many people with family problems don’t just talk to their friends but would rather go on The Jeremy Kyle Show. There’s an absence of the notion of shame in today’s society.

It is thus ironic that Channel 4 is showing reruns of Shameless. And I will insist on labouring the point: the station is in a mess. It has few serious programmes anymore; there are only so many repeats of Frasier or The Simpsons one can take; Will and Grace isn’t funny and never was; Channel 4 News is ridiculously partisan; Deal or No Deal is sinister; Gordon Ramsay’s swearing isn’t amusing anymore; and when Channel 4 is not showing horseracing in the daytime, it’s showing some crappy Western movie.

Big Brother was a classic example of Channel 4’s deceitfulness. Ostensibly, it was a programme that revolved around a social experiment, but in reality it was an excuse to show people bickering and shagging and – wouldn’t you know it – showing their boobies. And the idea was nicked from Holland, from the television production company Endemol – which was also responsible for Deal Or No Deal.

It’s true that serious television is on the decline in general, certainly on the terrestrial channels. BBC’s Panorama is a pale shadow of its former itself, now only shown during a weekly half-hour slot. ITV has almost given up on current affairs altogether – who remembers World In Action? Question Time is these days sullied by some idiot pop star or point-scoring comedian who should really be on Mock The Week on the Dave channel instead. No, the only place one can find decent, intelligent programmes is on BBC Four or the Yesterday channel. Or on Radio 4.

This is probably why Channel 4 has given up all pretence at aspiring to be the station for grown-ups. There’s too much competition, and in these times, too little money. Shows such as Embarrassing Bodies and Big Brother come cheap because they demand no scriptwriters.

So let Channel 4 be populist, but if it isn’t going to take itself seriously, why should the taxpayer fund it? Everyone complains about the BBC, but at least it has some redeeming qualities – especially Radio 4. The BBC may fail at times, but at least it tries. But what’s so good about Channel 4? If you have a TV guide to hand, pick it up now, flick through it, and name one decent, original show on Channel 4. Nope, it will be all repeats, horseracing, Westerns, and more repeats.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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