`I want programmes about people. Interesting people," a friend was told by a TV executive. "What sort of people?" he asked. "You know, interesting. Unusual. Like kids with huge tumours on their faces."
It tells us a lot about us - and not particularly edifying things - when we think about the sorts of people whom TV folk think we want to watch. Particularly on Channel 4, it seems. The freakishly unusual (Little Lady Fauntleroy), the ghoulish (Anatomy for Beginners), the nasty (Wife Swap) and the cruel (Big Brother). All these are served up for us in the name of "education". But these programmes are only educative in the way that those 19th-century freakshow fans were educated when they went to poke, laugh or stare at the Elephant Man.
The modern obsession with celebrity goes hand in glove with this freakshow stuff. Witness Five's new gossip show That's So... Last Week. Presented by irritatingly smug Scotsman Dougie Anderson, the show is a TV version of Heat magazine. "Your one-stop shop for all things celebrity," Dougie describes it. Fear of endorsing anything - for fear that it might turn out uncool - leads the show to diss everything and everyone. Dougie is joined by a posse of twentysomethings, whose job it is to come up with gross-out "witty" one-liners. "Like Barbara Cartland's clitoris," was how one wag described the dissected skin he'd seen on last week's anatomy programme. Then there was plenty of uninformed speculation about Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz's sex life. And that was about it. Do you care? Do you think it's funny? If so, you're reading the wrong newspaper, because that's so... rubbish.
A more traditional freakshow programme was on offer with Bodyshock: The Man Who Slept for 19 Years, which told of the "miracle" restoration of hillbilly car-crash victim Terry Wallis. Terry had "woken up" after nearly two decades in a vegetative coma. The facts were more prosaic than the programme's title suggested. Terry had indeed "woken up", in a manner of speaking. He is conscious. He can talk. But his words are inaudibly slurred, he is brain damaged and is unable to learn any new facts. He was unable, for example, to understand that the 20-year-old woman at his bedside was the baby daughter he'd left behind. The film-makers followed Terry and family on a trip to New York in the hope of finding further progress. They failed.
But this disappointment forced the producers into making a more interesting programme than they otherwise might have. Faced with an uninteresting story about Terry, they supplemented it with a straightforward film about coma: what it is, how it happens and how recovery can progress. This part of the programme was by far the most illuminating. Almost by accident, the Bodyshock producers came up with an interesting film.
A different kind of "miracle" was performed by Lady Stubbs (Julie Walters) at St George's School, Westminster, in Ahead of the Class. Far from the celebrity knocking copy of That's So... Last Week, this came close to hagiography. Hardly surprising, since the film was based on Stubbs' autobiography, and she clearly thinks highly of herself. Sent in to take charge at a violent failing Catholic school - the place where headmaster Philip Lawrence had been murdered - Stubbs overcame staff, pupil and diocesean opposition to turn the institution round. …