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TV UK, 13 November

A prostitute catches Louis Theroux faking it.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Like most people, Louis Theroux senses that there is something not right about prostitution, but he struggled throughout Louis and the Brothel (BBC2 on Sunday) to articulate this in terms not unduly insulting to prostitutes.

In the course of filming in a Nevada brothel, he formed a tentative friendship with Hayley, a self-possessed and awkwardly charming woman, who was nonetheless some way from being a happy hooker. In the end, he put it to her: ‘It’s fake, isn’t it?’

Having listened to the bromides about prostitution being ‘strictly business’ (bizarrely from Johns as well as hookers), and yet seen how the whole business is based on fantasy (self-deception fantasy as opposed to dressing-up fantasy), it was this sense of fakeness that finally repelled Theroux. But Hayley’s riposte was quick: ‘And your business is real?’

Touché. Isn’t television just the fake pot to prostitution’s fake kettle? Never mind glitzy showbiz excess – just take Sea Monsters (BBC1, Sundays at 7pm), a programme about pre-historic sea creatures, produced in the style of a contemporary wildlife programme. Zoologist Nigel Marven travels back in time to swim with computer-generated Nothosaurs and Megalodons. Last week’s episode ended on a ‘cliffhanger’, with Nigel being menaced by a Dunleosteus. Will he survive to fake another day?

In principle there is nothing wrong with using whatever means are available to get ideas across, but for documentary to take the form of fiction in the form of documentary adds a layer of confusion too many. This programme is so caught up in its own cleverness that its subject matter is obscured. Perhaps the producers are right to assume that nobody is really interested in prehistoric sea creatures, but in that case they might as well have gone the whole hog and given the time travelling zoologist special powers to wrestle the monsters.

Holy Cross (BBC1 on Monday) had fewer documentary pretensions than many docudramas, such as last year’s Bloody Sunday films (1). Like them, though, it was set in Northern Ireland, this time during the infamous protests in 2001 against Catholic schoolgirls walking to school through the Protestant Glenbryn area. And while the characters in Holy Cross were all fictional, the drama was certainly meant to give an insight into the situation.

Director Mark Brozel argues that ‘News tends to tell stories in a very black-and-white way. What a drama like Holy Cross can do is give people a really strong emotional connection with what people actually go through’. The challenge, of course, was to explain the behaviour of the protestors, who forced young girls to run an intimidating gauntlet just to get to school.

There were plenty of cross-eyed, buck-toothed villains involved, but the most important character in this respect was Sarah, a Protestant mother who frowned on sectarianism, but was desperate for a wall to separate the two communities and give her family peace. Sarah shunned the protests till her own daughter Karen was caught behind police lines, and then her own maternal instincts drove her to join in the intimidation of other people’s children.

This was neat enough, but not that convincing. If news is too black-and-white, drama is generally too personal to yield insights into such a complicated political situation. Short of a Tolstoyan panorama of Northern Irish history and society, a drama like this is always going to tend towards simplistic moralism. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up, Uncle Peter?’, Karen asked Sarah’s layabout brother – dramatically an electric moment, but one that reinforced the sense that the violence was a consequence of atavism.

On the other side of the fence, there was a stand-off between a former IRA man and his rioting son. There was a hint here that something profound had changed with the peace process, that violent political struggle was only now giving way to the mindless sectarianism of caricature. But the overall momentum of the drama meant that its moralism was projected back into the past. Instead of supporting her husband, the Catholic mother threw him out.

In the end, all the viewer could do was empathise with the women stuck in an impossible situation, and tut at the destructive irrelevance of their men. Making that emotional connection is not the same as understanding the situation. In this case, then, it isn’t that TV is fake, so much as inadequate to the purpose, leaving the viewer temporarily gratified, but ultimately unsatisfied.

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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spiked-issue: TV

(1) See TV UK, 24 January 2002

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Topics Culture

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