The Wonderland of the human heart

BBC2’s subtle documentary strand on human relationships was a welcome relief from this week’s sleazy headlines.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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I believe it was WB Yeats who penned the lines ‘the foul rag-and-bone-shop of the heart’: you can’t help but wonder what he would’ve made of the news headlines for the past few days. After a week in which sexual violence, rape, paedophilia and the legal ins and outs of Imogen Thomas seemed to dominate the agenda, the cold floor of that rag-and-bone shop started to seem like quite an enticing shelter from the storm. You probably never thought you could grow quite so tired of an exciting phrase such as ‘slut walk’ quite so quickly: I’m tempted to start a campaign to introduce the phrase ‘whore’s gambol’ to Radio 4. If not, I’ll throw a right old strumpet’s strop.

Fortunately, the more common, and less traumatic, aspects of les affaires de coeurs have not entirely left the world of polite airwaves conversation, thanks largely in part to BBC2’s Wonderland documentary series. Much of the attention for its current run, an annual strand on BBC2, has been grabbed by last week’s episode, subtitled The Trouble with Love & Sex. Claiming to be British TV’s first ever full-length animated documentary, the episode took us into real therapy sessions held by relationship counsellors Relate. I guess the BBC must’ve known they were breaking new ground of some sort when they’re able to categorise a programme ‘intimate relationships/animation’ on iPlayer.

Despite the horribly twee connotations of treating genuine adult problems as some form of children’s cartoon, however, it served a useful purpose as a distancing device in allowing you to listen to the intimacies of warring couples without the spectacle offered by talkshow theatricals. The flipside of that, of course, is that it allowed you to get off on listening to the grubby details and gossip of other people’s private lives without having to feel too sordid about the whole thing, so maybe it was just Jeremy Kyle for nice middle-class people who claim to be above that sort of thing.

In the end, it was a programme as warm as the cartoon depictions, reminding you of the essential banalities of relationship problems. Waning sexual chemistry after many years together, difficulties with balancing family commitments, an obsession with petty slights from yesteryear (which somehow become more important than, say, previous affairs): they were all here. The counsellors didn’t really do very much to help the two couples who walked away successfully from the experience, other than let them talk to each other. I suppose it was a cunning advert for the profession, given that for most people hearing the phrase ‘marriage counselling’ from friends or parents is generally a good sign that you don’t have to start saving for that anniversary present just yet.

The one exception to this tale of coupledom at war was a male client who was not actually in a relationship. There was something about being confronted by a lonely, socially dysfunctional oddball called Dave who fills the emptiness of his own life through extended metaphors of celebrity lives that could make a TV columnist with a more delicate constitution want to go off on a long walk where he kicks something alive and non-sentient – but even his tragic tale had a happy (sort of) ending. A gentle soul from an abusive upbringing, even he was able quickly to learn how to throw away his enormous stockpile of pills and end his unhappy obsession with a stranger from work. ‘There’s help for us all’, the counsellor reminded him. Once again, you were reminded of the difference between therapy – a specific form of intervention sought to combat specific problems – and a therapeutic culture, where we’re encouraged to see all problems as being inherently caused by ourselves that we must learn to deal with from within. It turns out that encouraging couples to get shitfaced on wine and rut like rabbits can save more marriages than any number of theories about evolutionary biology.

In a climate where marriage and commitment are increasingly viewed as regressive throwbacks to a more straitjacketed, conservative time – and a one-stop shop for emotional damage and deep unhappiness – it was a nice reminder that people are actually quite happy getting on with things in their own way without serious psychiatric intervention. It was hardly a scintillating advert for the passion and intensity of getting hitched, but it was a useful reminder that the people who choose to do so aren’t all bad either.

Slightly less stirring was Wednesday night’s offering, A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride or – if we’re being slightly more honest – My Big Fat Oi Vey Wedding. Evidently following on from the Channel 4 hit show about gypsy nuptials, this documentary sought to offer an insight into the mating rituals of another mysterious and close-knit community: the strictly religious Hasidic Jews of London’s Stamford Hill. Unfortunately, whereas gypsies really do know how to have a good time, it was difficult to know what positives you were meant to take from this show. It was intended to be a study in how difficult it is to find love in the twenty-first century while obeying a strictly religious eighteenth-century lifestyle. Quite difficult, it turns out, especially if you’re also a convicted fraudster.

Shows like this generally thrive on either bashing modern lifestyles by looking at the values we’ve lost, or making us thankful for what we’ve got: sadly, the producer found it difficult to do the former with a straight face, but was too non-judgemental to do the latter. So it turned into a faintly aimless meander around a lonely divorcee’s attempt to find his son a wife, which it transpires isn’t much funnier just because you’re Jewish. It even featured an old bickering Jewish couple, which generally improves most things, but not notably in this case. The most revealing detail was the discovery that due to an arcane ritual, Hasidic men aren’t allowed to sleep with any lights still on in the house. Forget going off to Israel, Avi, why not hook your son up on eco-dating website?

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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