As a child, I remember being told by my parents not to stare at people who looked ‘different’: lots of not-so-old men who’d been horribly injured during WW1 were still around at the time and they were a startling sight. They were affectionately called gueules cassées (broken faces) and the French National Lottery was set up to collect money for them. They were respected, not mocked.
So, I never let my gaze even linger on someone whose appearance is a bit odd or who is in a wheelchair or whatever. Like everyone else, I am curious and would sometimes like to find out what happened to the person; like everyone else (I hope), I feel compassion and would like to offer my sympathy, but I know it’s not acceptable, so I try not to behave in an offensive way just by looking. I have seen children stare openly at a disabled person and not being checked by a parent standing next to them. I have myself been stared and pointed at – when I had bright red hair that seemed to offend some people. When there was a possibility that I might lose an eye, fifteen years ago, I knew I would probably have to have counselling in order to help me cope with the stares that I would no doubt be subjected to.
I thought we were supposed to be a more tolerant and caring society, but we are all turning into the worst kind of voyeurs. Until recently I believed Big Brother and other reality shows had plumbed the depths of shamefulness, but then there was Extreme Plastic Surgery (or whatever that ignominious programme was called) and that went well beyond the limits of bad taste. At least the people taking part in those shows were volunteers (whether or not they were getting paid for appearing in them). Now Channel 4 has gone further and has revived the Victorian Freak Show by broadcasting a series entitled Bodyshock, advertised as ‘Extraordinary and captivating real-life stories’ and as ‘A collection of startling and shocking real-life stories’. Here are the titles of the programmes that are to be shown in the next few weeks:
The Boy Who Gave Birth to his Twin
The Man Who Slept for 19 Years
The Man Who Ate His Lover
The 80-Year-Old Children
The Two-Headed Baby
Because I don’t like to dismiss anything without at least catching a glimpse of it, I watched ten minutes of one programme, The Curse of the Mermaid (about a baby girl born with her legs fused together and no external genitals). It was seemingly about the operations that were going to be performed to make her ‘normal’, but it was just a chance for people to gawp at a poor, deformed little body. I haven’t been able to avoid the trailers for the next programme, Half-Ton Man. You can just imagine what that’s going to be like.
What Channel 4 is doing is ignoble and panders to our worst instincts. The irony is that the very first programme that company broadcast, back in the mid-’80s, was a wonderful, compassionate film about a man with learning difficulties, called Walter, with Ian McKellen in the title role. It seemed to herald an era of responsible programming.
I’ve just read Channel 4’s Statement of Promises. It says that Channel 4 should ‘foster the new and experimental in television. It will encourage pluralism, provide a favoured place for the untried and encourage innovation in style, content, perspective and talent, on and off screen. [...] We are a commercial broadcaster, with a funding structure and public service remit to provide diverse and innovative programming and services. [...] Channel 4 aims to set ambitions for innovation in British media that others aspire to meet.’
‘that others aspire to meet’ – this is only the beginning, then…