Convention has it that if you are going to write an angry letter to The Times you begin in one of two ways. Either you say, “Can I be alone in thinking that… is an abomination”, or, more stridently, “If there is one thing that sums up all that is wrong with… today, it is…”
Only rarely do the two come together in a kind of double-bluster and this is one of those occasions.
First to set the scene. At some point in every day I go through the ritual of scanning that evening’s TV schedules in the hope that there might be something worth watching. It is a dispiriting task. The box is now almost entirely given over to Brits behaving badly in one way or another. Either they are amateur performers effing and blinding their way through their allotted 15 minutes of fame, or they are professional presenters or comedians doing much the same but with an added element of smugness.
So why do I bother? It is because every now and then something worth seeing surreptitiously crawls through the dross and there is a quiet satisfaction in spotting it. Of course I’d be better off spending my evenings in some other way, but by the end of the day I am usually too tired to read and too intoxicated for bridge or chess.
At any rate, it was while I was scanning the programmes on offer last week that I found myself muttering, “Can I be alone in thinking that if there is one thing that sums up all that is wrong with television in general and the BBC in particular it is this…”
My bulging eye had fallen on the following: “7.30. Body Hits. Dr John Marsden examines body odour, which sees him flatulate into a foil bag to collect the composition of his smell (T).”
There could be no metaphor for modern TV more poignant or telling: that a member of a learned profession should stand before the cameras and fart into a bag.
I am assuming that he was in a standing position. I did not watch the programme, so that and several other questions remain, to me, unanswered. Did Dr Marsden drop his trousers there and then, facing the lens, or did whatever vestige of modesty still clung to him, oblige him to turn away showing us merely the engine of his flatulence and sparing us sight of his organs of reproduction? How was he able to summon the necessary wind when required? Or was it a matter of the camera crew, sound engineers, continuity girls and so on, sitting around drinking coffee and chatting idly until the moment when the doctor’s intestines told him that fruition was at hand?
I mention sound engineers, who were undoubtedly present: were they called upon to record the anal emission? Or was it of the variety known to schoolboys as “silent but deadly”, in which case the microphone would not be needed? Unless, of course, the doctor spoke. Did he perhaps, bearing in mind the BBC’s notion of comedy, say something such as, “pick the bones out of that”?
These and other questions must, alas, remain unanswered. But to those of you who, quite properly, ask why the doctor used a bag made of foil rather than of brown paper, which would have served the purpose just as well, the answer is twofold: first, the BBC is no stranger to extravagance and secondly, pseudo-scientific programming requires hi-tech props. This was not Blue Peter, and the doctor was not making a glove puppet out of everyday household objects, he was making a scientific observation, namely that wind passed from the anus is, in general, malodorous.
To those of you who say we already know that, I say that most people already know that if you combine the IQs of Des and Mel you would still not have a quorum, and that Richard and Judy give banality a bad name, but that doesn’t stop viewers watching in their millions.
So much was expected of television in its early days. It was to be an unprecedented force for learning, enlightenment, culture and entertainment. It would enrich us in myriad ways. It would inform, amuse and through its unique powers of immediacy, colour and movement be life-enhancing.
How great is the gulf between the vanity of human wishes and the will to make them real. Far from being a gentle bearer of beneficence, TV has become a ravenous beast whose appetite for anything – anything – with which to fill the perpetual void of the schedules leads it to scavenge with increasing desperation.
But it is given only to a very few of us to have the will to turn away, to switch off, to cleanse our brains of Big Brother and EastEnders, of Anne Robinson and Graham Norton and dozens of other airborne blights.
Instead, exhausted by the need to work five months in every 12 for the taxman, and befuddled by the poisons of our choosing, we have neither the energy nor the inclination to reject the most powerful medium ever invented.
And if in return we are shown a doctor passing wind into a bag, it is no more than we deserve. After all, it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and, in Dr Marsden, we reap that wind.