A minor hiccup for freakshow television

A film about a man trying to cope with a distressing condition suggested we’re only really moved by the truly weird.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

There is an episode of The Simpsons which features the inane TV anchorman, Kent Brockman, opening with the following salvo: ‘Tonight, on “Eye on Springfield”, we meet a man who has been hiccupping for 45 years!’, he declares with a witless grin, before switching to video of the person in question. ‘Hic! Kill me!’ he pleads, ‘Hic! Kill Me!’ This was obviously meant to be a satire on how factual television, in its high-ratings pursuit of the curious and the unusual, can be consequently flippant and callous. Not only does populist TV reportage often fail to take some situations seriously, it can actually lead producers, and certainly some viewers, to derive perverse pleasure from other peoples’ misfortunes.

The 1989 edition of QED, ‘John’s Not Mad’, about a teenager with Tourette’s syndrome, was a classic example. The documentary’s producers may have had perfectly sincere intentions, but to much of the viewing public, especially teenagers, it was received as an hilarious programme about a Scottish boy who went round supermarkets shouting ‘fuck off’ at old ladies. Only when QED caught up with the man in question in 2002, in ‘The Boy Can’t Help It’, did many of my generation fully come to appreciate how appalling we had been in laughing about him all those years back.

The problem is that swearing can be a source of amusement. So, would a documentary about a man with chronic hiccups be any better? After all, hiccups can often be seen as quite funny, especially as they are often triggered by alcohol consumption. In the subconscious, we associate someone with hiccups with someone who is a bit sozzled and acting a bit funny.

In The Man Who Can’t Stop Hiccupping (BBC One, Tuesday), we were shown that the reality could be very far from amusing (1). One day in September 2006, a young man called Christopher Sands got the hiccups, and it didn’t stop. At the beginning of the programme we saw disturbing scenes of him in considerable distress: he has trouble sleeping, he can’t work, he can’t eat properly, and often struggles to breathe. Gazing into the camera, his face pallid and with haunted eyes, he declares bleakly, ‘it has ruined my life’. Consequently, I doubt The Man Who Can’t Stop Hiccupping was the talk of many playgrounds this week.

Sands was clearly a man in torment, enduring the throes of an apparently slight yet mercilessly unrelenting equivalent of Chinese water torture. Although evidently down, he seemed far from defeated, and the viewer cannot but have admired his stoicism. It is not only the physical fortitude that he displayed, but the mental togetherness in the face of a disorder that would have driven others to insanity or suicide, that was impressive. Instead, Sands was resolute, pleading pathetically that all he wanted to do was be able to eat a pepperoni pizza.

This documentary charted his journey to get his life back. Doctors had no idea why the hiccups started and were equally at a loss as how to stop them. With medics flummoxed, he tried acupuncture, hypnotherapy, an oxygen chamber – all to no avail. With endless scans and consultation proving fruitless, Sands decided to make a public appeal on the BBC’s One Show, which, via the internet, led to interest from Japan and a consequent appearance on that country’s World’s Astonishing News show.

The word ‘Japan’ in conjunction with the issue of medical oddities will probably have raised alarm bells among most viewers. In British eyes, Japan is the country deemed responsible for giving the world freakshow TV, as anyone who watched Clive James on Television in the 1980s will remember. Was Sands to become merely another object of unhealthy, lurid fascination, a kind of modern-day bearded woman or spider-baby?

As it happens, thanks to his appearance on World’s Astonishing News, Sands was eventually cured of the condition. What is more, this Japanese TV show may well have saved his life.

Sands was born with a weak stomach valve, which from an early age gave him constant heartburn. This, his family believed and GP diagnosed, was the root cause of the problem. Sands had read on the internet that a tumour might have triggered the condition, but a CT scan found no evidence to this effect. Yet it was thanks to his visit to Japan, and hospital treatment paid for by the Japanese television company, that he was consequently found indeed to have a tumour. A brain operation to remove it has subsequently cured him of the hiccups.

I suppose we were meant to focus upon the human angle of this story. Sands’s fortitude departed him when he was told of the tumour: finally finding out the cause of his hiccups was countered considerably by the knowledge that his troublesome condition was the symptom of something potentially life-threatening. We saw him collapse in tears, as he began to speak of his own mortality.

But while the documentary was done responsibly, and never melodramatically, it didn’t particularly tug the heart-strings. To put it bluntly, Sands seemed too strong in the beginning to seem to need the viewer’s sympathy, and his recovery wasn’t protracted enough to warrant further concern. Perhaps, and it is a regrettable thing to say, documentaries about freakish conditions need to be freakshows.

Instead, the show’s sober tone left one pondering: why didn’t he have a MRI scan in the UK that would have discovered this tumour? Sands’s family could not afford private healthcare, and no NHS doctors or CT scans managed to identify the cause of his hiccupping. Why did it take a TV show, inadvertently, to cure Sands of this condition? Perhaps here’s an example of the law of unintended consequences, a manifestation of a cultural ‘invisible hand’, in that when some people do things for ignoble or selfish reasons, it can be for the greater good. I personally don’t have a firm opinion on the private- versus public-healthcare debate, but I don’t think it will be as easy to pour scorn on Japanese television ever again.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

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(1) See The Man Who Can’t Stop Hiccuping on BBC iPlayer here.

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