Before I go on, can I just ask: do any readers share my concern about the scrawny bum on the girl on the new Nokia billboard poster ad? For those of you who haven’t seen it, it shows a naked couple running, carefree, through the surf along a long, empty Atlantic-style beach. The chap’s backside looks absolutely fine but the girl’s one looks as if it has been doctored with Photoshop to make her buttocks seem less pert and attractive so as not to attract complaints. Well, I’m complaining.
Meanwhile in TV world I have noticed that a horrid trend has become at least as annoyingly overdone as previous trends like home/garden makeover programmes and docusoaps. I suppose you could call it Personal Growth TV because it all springs from the same glib assumption: our lives are all wrong but it’s OK, nanny TV can fix it.
This week, for example, there’s The River Cottage Treatment (C4, Thursday), which aims to turn eco-raping, self-poisoning, battery-chicken-munching proles into nurturing, gastronomically adventurous, organically grown ponces. There’s Digging Deep (BBC2, Tuesday) where a pair of ostentatiously zappy garden designers turn up on people’s doorsteps not just to relocate their shrubberies but also to heal their inner torment. And then, of course, there’s Trinny & Susannah Undress (ITV, Tuesday) where the girls aren’t allowed merely to say rude things about lower-middle-class people’s wardrobes — they’re actually supposed to rescue their marriages, too.
Before all these, of course, we had programmes like Faking It (PlayStation addict gets just four weeks to become a sniper in Helmand; pharmacology graduate from De Montfort University gets a month to discover cure for cancer, etc.); Bad Lads Army (bring back National Service); Super Nanny (vile toddlers tamed); and Brat Camp (vile teenagers crushed).
Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these programmes per se. It was fantastic the way, last week, Hugh F.-W. successfully put all his human guinea pigs off eating battery chicken for ever simply by making them eat rooster testicles and encouraging one of them to hold the bird while an approved, professional, organic home-slaughterer slit its throat. And it was really touching the way in the first episode Trinny and Tranny rekindled the love life of that nice couple in Scotland, even if it was slightly disgusting having to watch them examine one another’s naked bodies behind a screen.
But just because something works isn’t a justification for total ubiquity. For example, Double Gloucester and Red Onion Kettle Chips are a deeply wonderful thing, perhaps among the greatest triumphs of Western civilisation. Would we want them to be our sole source of nutrition, though? I think not. We’d need our diet to be balanced by the Salsa with Mesquite and the Black Pepper ones at the very least.
One of the things I really object to about this new Personal Growth trend are its socio-political undertones. It seems to me to be all part of that same wrong alley Dave Cameron/Steve Hilton are trying to drag the Tory party down. What I mean here is the fashionable nostrum that we’re all so helpless nowadays that we can’t be expected to take any responsibility for our actions; instead we need some outside agency (e.g., the state, Nanny TV, the Carbon Trust, Zebedee and his power moustache, whoever) to step in and bail us out.
What I also hate about Personal Growth TV is its glibness and dishonesty. Dearly would I love to believe, as Faking It so tantalisingly implies, that I could chuck in my job tomorrow and within four weeks be taking Taleban’s heads apart with a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle (like the Canuck in that awesome YouTube video)/beginning my new career as Radiohead’s lead guitarist/becoming MFH of the South Dorset. But I don’t believe that life is that simple. Nor do I believe that a spell in Brat Camp would stop my daughter being a manipulative cow or a visit from Trinny and Tranny would stop my wife constantly grumbling that I don’t pay sufficient attention to my children at breakfast.
This idea that our lives are just one big personal growth curve is the invention of the psychotherapy industry. The truth is that, by and large, we don’t learn from our mistakes. We just get worse and worse until we die and it’s about time that TV acknowledged this. Personal Growth TV is just lifestyle porn for the deluded. What we need is misery TV. A reality TV series in which, say, five happily married men who love their wives and kids are sent to supermodel-nubile island where (watched on camera by their appalled wives) they finally succumb to the denizens’ many charms. Subsequent episodes could show the divorce proceedings and the loss of custody, and the wives shacking up with abusive neanderthals and the men ending up drinking Tennants Super under Vauxhall Arches. Then the rest of us could watch and go: ‘Isn’t my life great?’