TV UK, 21 November

Gunther von Hagens' public autopsy: ghoulish showmanship, or taking guts to the masses?

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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The opening titles to Quincy used to show the medical examiner introducing a group of young policemen to the ‘exciting world of forensic pathology’. When Quincy began the autopsy with a first incision, several of the novices keeled over in horror.

Last night, Channel 4 screened the first ever televised autopsy, performed by the suitably creepy performance pathologist Professor Gunther von Hagens before an audience in London’s fashionable Brick Lane. Presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy warned viewers not to watch if they had any doubts, and a panel of worthies was on hand to discuss the ethics. The discussion hinged on whether von Hagen’s showmanship undermined his commendable motive of bringing guts to the masses. Personally, I am in favour of hats in operating theatres.

In fact, while there was a genuine dead body on the table, this was not an entirely ‘realistic’ autopsy. The body was eight months old and preserved with formaldehyde, so there was no blood and no stench of corruption to shock the audience. The first cut, across the top of the man’s chest, was quite dramatic, especially as it took several scores to break the skin, but after that the body resembled one of von Hagen’s notorious ‘plastinated’ corpses more than a real person (1). And anyway, the cameras didn’t have a particularly good view: it was the spectacle we were here to see, rather than the operation itself.

There was some discussion about whether the performance represented a return to the Renaissance tradition of public curiosity about science, or a more ghoulish circus aesthetic. But there was some consensus that people ought to be exposed more regularly to death and encouraged to accept it as part of life. This type of thinking is hardly revolutionary. One of the most commended dramas of the moment, Six Feet Under, is set in an undertaker’s. If anything, people have to be convinced that life is worth living.

I’m not sure that the new series of Celebrity Big Brother (Channel 4, daily at 9pm) is going to help. The opening episode came a few hours before The Autopsy and introduced us to the celebrities. As before, people will complain that they aren’t real celebrities, but I’d heard of them all and I’ve never even touched Heat magazine. In any case, that kind of criticism misses the point. Big Brother turns nonentities into disposable celebrities and celebrities into disposable nonentities. Any genuine distinction would be a handicap.

First into the house was Goldie, the drum-and-bass guy. He got straight into the spirit of things by talking to himself when there was nobody else to talk to, in a kind of pastiche of inner life. There followed an awkward silence when daytime TV host Anne Diamond arrived and intimacy threatened, but with the arrival of the others came a safe hum of meaningless chatter. Outside, Davina McCall was whipping the crowd into a frenzy of casual interest, and assuring viewers at home of how excited she was.

It is clear that the viewers as much as the housemates are expected to play a part. ‘It’s gonna be great!’ we’re supposed to tell ourselves. ‘It’s so trashy, but I can’t resist it!’ we’re supposed to say. ‘I tell everybody I don’t watch it, but really I never miss an episode!’ we’re supposed to tell everybody. Well, if people like it…. Maybe it’s getting to the stage where criticising Big Brother is like having a go at Christmas.

Anyway, I’ve done my duty by watching the first episode, and will now go back to watching reruns on the Hallmark Channel. Maybe they’ll revive Quincy.

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)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Making a spectacle of ourselves, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

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Topics Politics


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