August 1, 2008

Television Review: A Laughable Look at Serious Matters

By Paul Whitelaw

My Strange Brain, Five Harley Street, STV

AS SHOWN in the new medical science/gawp-at-the-afflicted series, My Strange Brain, Mohammed Dowd suffers from chronic narcolepsy. His attacks are so dangerously frequent that he has to wander around his house wearing a protective head-guard.

He also suffers from something called cataplexy which causes him to completely lose control of his muscles after experiencing any kind of heightened emotional response. In need of constant care, his life seemed insufferable.

And yet seeing him suddenly keel over while playing the blues on his guitar made me laugh out loud. I don't think I've ever witnessed a greater musical critique in my life. I know that's wrong, and I'm sorry. Actually, I'm not, as my reaction is exactly what the programme-makers wanted, so blame them for editing together a sequence designed for maximum amusement. "Oh, but it's important for viewers to understand the extent of Mohammed's condition," they'd no doubt argue, as they dub comedy vibraphone music over scenes of him snoozing on the pavement.

This tendency towards crass insensitivity isn't unusual in these types of programmes, and pointing out that Five is virtually defined by its disease-of-the-week output is news to no-one. And yet it galls me that otherwise informative programmes such as this are soiled by their presentation.

Often during an attack, Mohammed automatically continues what he is doing despite being asleep, meaning that the simple act of shaving can turn into a bloodbath. That's interesting. Awful, but interesting. Such information offers insight into a condition many of us probably thought we understood, which should be the point.

Likewise, I learned something new from the case of teenager Alana Wong, who suffers from Kleine-Levin syndrome. This causes her to sleep almost constantly. When she does wake up, she remains in a kind of erratic, child-like trance. It looked terrifying, and was therefore underscored with sinister music.

An inappropriate soundtrack also blighted the tale of Claire Rutherford, who lost 30 years of memories due to the common herpes virus, which lurks within us all (news to me also). This is frightening, tragic, poignant; and yet how do you think she felt watching a programme featuring distorted fairground-mirror images of her face accompanied by Twilight Zone-style music?

Still, at least they stumped up the cash to send science-buff Mohammed to the National Science Museum, his first major excursion outdoors in nearly 20 years. It appeared to grant him some much needed confidence, thereby proving it possible for a programme to be simultaneously helpful and maddeningly insensitive.

What is the point of Harley Street? The programme, not the place - I appreciate that Jonathan Ross has to go somewhere to have his prostate checked. This dull, soapy serial brings nothing new to the overplayed medical genre; the "glamorous" setting and "sexy" characters can't disguise that this is Casualty in expensive loafers.

And surely they're going to run out of showbiz archetypes to treat soon? This week, permanently smirking doc Paul Nicholls came to the aid of a steroid-addicted Premiership footballer played by Shameless' Gerard Kearns, while Suranne Jones treated a sick baby belonging to a magazine editor (Sally Phillips, whose anguished turn was too good for this tosh). I reckon they should take the Extras route and cast celebrities as themselves: "You've fallen in love with John McCririck? But what about us?" Who wouldn't watch that?

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