Who could have imagined that the peach-blossomed Mrs Bottomley would emerge as the embodiment of political flexibility? Yet, in her new incarnation as the fourth holder of that most superfluous of the great offices of state, National Heritage, she has at a stroke overturned much that she stood for in her previous role as health disciplinarian.
Pressed and starched, she appeared before the nation’s media to announce, in the icy-cool tones previously employed to close hospitals, ambitious plans to open at least 18 new terrestrial television channels.
By a happy coincidence, her announcement came on the same day that the Dunn Nutrition Centre in Cambridge published its research purporting to prove a link between a national explosion in obesity and television viewing. If Mrs Bottomley were susceptible to irony, which I doubt, she would appreciate the neat contrast between her stern advocacy of “healthy eating”, exemplified by the limitation on the number of egg-sized potatoes the ordinary citizen should eat each year, and her endorsement of a huge increase in the incentives for people to slump, inert and blubbery, in front of their TV sets.
In politics, as in the snake oil business, it pays to have a short memory, a chameleon-like quality, and a number of aliases.
Plainly, there are serious implications for the nation’s health, mental and physical, in the scheme to increase the number of TV channels.
On the positive side, the Dunn Centre goes some way towards exonerating marketing, a known cause of sundry evils and previously held to be at least partly to blame for the increase in fat people. According to the centre, the traditional explanation for an alleged doubling in the number of seriously obese citizens over the past ten years was that increasing affluence, a rich variety of food, and persuasive advertising had led to over-eating.
Interestingly, when Mrs Bottomley was in charge of health, we heard little of these traditional explanations, perhaps because a policy of reducing affluence, curtailing choice, and banning advertising would have had adverse political implications. Even so, she subscribed to the link between excessive eating and excessive fatness, now shown to be erroneous.
The Dunn Centre says the fat content of the British diet has been stable and total food intake has declined by one-fifth even as the nation’s waistlines have welled. The true reason why we have become a nation of blobbies is that we have adopted a slothful, inactive existence. We drive everywhere, shun sport, have sedentary jobs, and, above all, watch far too much television.
Inevitably, the researchers cannot remain content merely to describe cause and effect. They feel compelled to advance solutions. Dr Andrew Prentice, head of energy metabolism at the Dunn Centre, says public health strategies must aim to increase physical activity. How Mrs Bottomley would have relished that.
But that was at another time in a different job. Today, she must advocate more television and turn a blind eye to the consequences. Oddly enough, she is doing the right thing twice over. First, if advances in technology make television akin to publishing in terms of choice and diversity, so be it. Secondly, if watching television makes us fat, so be it too. In neither case, should government be involved.
Even so, one cannot help wondering what on earth is going to appear on all these channels. One rather lame suggestion is that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and the forthcoming Channel 5 may experiment with other services, such as films or natural history. Even the most devout and adipose couch potato would be hard put to deny that television already has a sufficiency of old films. As for natural history, who has not seen enough of the lioness stalking her prey, or of the life and times of the wildebeests in the Serengeti?
Far more likely is that the 20 or so channels will transmit couples assiduously practising their sexual chemistry on couches, their coy flirting interspersing the banalities of various celebrities each with something to promote. Even that seems unlikely to assuage the voracious appetite of television time. There will be a need for the experimental.
A hint of what might be in store on the digital airwaves is on show at the Serpentine Gallery, where an actress, Tilda Swinton, is sleeping fully-clothed in a glass case for eight hours a day. The event, described as The Maybe, is sponsored by a 7,000 grant from the Arts Council.
The gallery calls the project “a performance of epic proportions and contemplative beauty. An intense and extraordinary work”. Miss Julia Little, a spokeswoman for the Serpentine, says the intention is to explore the unconscious state, the vulnerability of a sleeping person, and the enigma of mortality.
The Maybe seems absolutely right for digital television. It fills eight hours a day, is inexpensive to produce, provides a modest income for an otherwise unemployed actress, and explores the unconscious state.
In fact, digital TV could improve on the original, allowing the viewer to respond to what he or she sees on the screen. The camera could explore Miss Swinton’s sleeping form from various angles, the microphone could convey her gentle snoring, and the viewer could offer a cup of tea when she wakes up.
It’s not Noel Edmonds, it’s not Match of the Day, but never before would the viewing public have had the opportunity simultaneously to wax corpulent and experience a performance of epic proportions and contemplative beauty. And, as Mrs Bottomley would no doubt remind us, there is something wonderfully apposite in a slob contemplating the televised enigma of mortality.