July 8, 2008

There’s No One Who Can Touch Her

By Brian Viner

Last Night's TV


On Desert Island Discs a few weeks back, the cartoonist Posy Simmonds recalled that when she was a girl her father had given her an enormous chest, full of paper. Coincidentally, a girl called Ellie from Leicestershire will grow up with a similar story to tell, having also been given an enormous chest by her father. The significant difference is that hers is full of silicone. Ellie featured on Alesha: Look But Don't Touch, in which the singer Alesha Dixon investigated and indeed castigated the retouching phenomenon, whereby already-beautiful women cannot grace the covers of glossy magazines until their every spot, blemish and shadow has been doctored out. Alesha's belief is that this creates a dangerously misleading notion of beauty, making victims of girls such as Ellie, who compare themselves with these visions of perfection and find themselves wanting.

Television has explored this territory before, but not with a glossy-mag cover star at the helm, aghast at how she has herself been touched up, even (take a bow, FHM) in the crotch region. It was instructive, and Alesha was an engaging and eloquent presence throughout, even for those of us who had to ask our wives who she was. "Didn't she win The X Factor or one of those shows?" came the reply from the kitchen, where Mrs Viner was doctoring some blemishes in our nine-year-old son's homework. Actually, it was Strictly Come Dancing.

Alesha was ambivalent about Ellie's 7,500 boob job, an 18th birthday present from her dad. She could see why Ellie, miserable with what she perceived as inadequate breasts, might want it to boost her self-esteem. "But how did we get to the point where that's the answer to get self-confidence?" she asked. Too true. There has been a 150 per cent rise these past few years in teenagers having plastic surgery, and dissatisfaction with their bodies sets in young. Three-quarters of girls aged eight to 12 want to change something about their appearance. By the time some of them reach their mid-teens, a want has become an ache, verging on a neurosis.

Television itself, as much as magazines, is the culprit. The psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is a Feminist Issue, explained what happened when TV was introduced to Fiji. Within a short while more than 10 per cent of Fijian girls had become bulimic, as they strove to become part of "the modern world".

Meanwhile, Alesha tried to persuade various magazines to stick her on the cover untouched. She is a woman of considerable natural beauty, yet they all said no, it was more than their jobs were worth, it would be disastrous for sales etc. The advertising companies who produce billboards were similarly emphatic. "And if you see a picture on a billboard that hasn't been retouched, are you going to crash your car?" asked Alesha, but her commonsense fell on stony ground. In the end, only Celebs on Sunday, a Sunday Mirror pull-out, would accede to her request. And even they wanted to do something with her "strange armpits".

It was a relief, after this, to turn to the first in a new series of New Tricks, which stars James Bolam, Dennis Waterman, Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman in what is a curious hybrid of The Sweeney and Last of the Summer Wine. I didn't catch the first four series and if this episode is anything to go by I won't be watching much of the fifth, but it was nevertheless a pleasure, after seeing how much of the media treats wrinkles and bags under the eyes, to watch the defiantly wrinkled trio of Bolam, Waterman and Armstrong, who collectively sport more bags than an airport carousel, go about their business. As for Redman, she would have made a good interviewee for Alesha. She is badly and extensively scarred on her left arm as a result of a childhood accident, but far from trying to conceal her scars, goes to considerable pains to show them.

Speaking of pain, though, it causes me some to give a thumbs down to a project featuring Redman, Bolam, Waterman and Armstrong, about as fine an ensemble as British television drama can muster. On the basis of last night's story about a prostitute and her dead benefactor, New Tricks looks like an inadequate vehicle for their talents, with leaden dialogue that somehow you can tell has been learned, and does not encourage the rather important illusion, for a drama, of seeming spontaneous. Still, New Tricks has been hauling in millions of viewers since 2003, so maybe I should stick with it.

I'll be sticking more wholeheartedly with Chinese Food Made Easy, which last night contained the useful if alarming information that a takeaway of sweet-and-sour pork with egg fried rice for four people has the same fat content as 30 hamburgers. The lovely Ching-He Huang, a Taiwanese Nigella Lawson, but less bonkers, told us how we might avoid this artery-clogging disaster by doing it ourselves, which has to be worth half an hour of anybody's time.

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