TV UK, 11 December

Bedsitcom blues.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Bedsitcom (Channel 4, weeknights at 10.40pm) is supposed to put a twist on the standard reality TV format by bringing in writers to direct half the participants, unknown to the others. If you can bear to put yourself in the head of a TV executive for a moment, you’ll see that it is actually a brilliant idea.

In the event however, the execs have been let down by the ‘writers’, who seem to have been brought in as a job lot from the BBC Comedy-Not-Including-The-Office Department. In any case, they fail to make Bedsitcom any less soul-destroyingly boring than a real reality show. I’m not sure whether this should count as a failing, or some kind of achievement. In fact, Bedsitcom is a bit like an extended version of Beadle’s About, with the actors making fools of the participants and making the audience cringe through their boredom.

At least now I can legitimately use my favourite line: ‘Who writes this crap?’, and even put faces to the names, unless maybe the writers are actors too, but that’s a whole other brilliant idea….

In the case of Frankenstein: Birth of a Monster (BBC1 last Sunday), some of the responsibility has to be taken by Percy Shelley, whose double negatives and banal sentiments were not wholly un-all over the programme. This was one of those hybrid documentaries with a narrator and actors, like Channel 4’s recent Ancient Egyptians thing. Robert Winston provided the cultural context, while Percy bleated about free love and Mary was alternately coquettish and ghoulish.

Alongside the narrator-actor hybrid, Frankenstein also combined social history with personal biography, using Mary Shelley’s life to reveal something about the influence of science and the position of women in nineteenth-century society. It didn’t work, though – the social history was smothered by dramatic reconstructions, and the dramatic reconstructions were typically naff, especially when they were supposed to be spooky. As for biography, Shelley and Byron came out of it pretty badly, but the monster did well.

The water-cooler programme of the week was undoubtedly The Boy Who Gave Birth to his Twin (Channel 4 on Monday), which also combined science with a personal story. The programme was about a boy in Kazakhstan who turned out to have a half-formed twin growing inside him. In the midst of the scientific explanation, I was somewhat bemused to be presented with a reality TV moment, as a visiting Canadian scientist asked the family about the boy over dinner. The tearful mother was reluctant to discuss it in front of her husband, since she felt responsible for the whole thing, and the programme took a condescending cultural turn.

What most of us were more interested in, of course, was the incredible amount of hair on the twin thing: it was the sort of thing you really would have dismissed as ridiculous in a drama. ‘Who writes this crap?’ On Channel 4 at least, truth is stranger than fiction.

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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