Living off the fat of the land
Pat Stacey looks at shed-the-flab tv and those who put themselves up for very public humiliation
Some of you are no doubt old enough to remember the great comic actress Hattie Jacques, who starred in 14 Carry On movies. A large woman with a big personality, she was usually cast as formidable authority figures and played a hospital matron in five of the Carry Ons.
On television, Jacques enjoyed further success playing her close friend Eric Sykes' twin sister -- their physical dissimilarity was part of the gag -- in 16 series of his self-penned, self-titled sitcom. Publicly, Jacques was a British national treasure, adored by audiences and her fellow actors. Privately, her weight caused her great anguish.
She felt trapped by her typecast image as the jolly, silly fat woman who's invariably the butt of the joke without ever quite figuring out what the joke is. But that, like it or not, is the way comedy stereotyping worked back in those pre-PC times. Fat people were always buffoons to be jeered at.
You'd never get away with it now, of course. Nobody laughs at James Corden because he's on the plump side -- although plenty of us don't laugh at him for other reasons, the chief one being he's not remotely funny.
Laughing at someone simply because they're fat is cruel and stupid, unless they happen to be Oliver Hardy, who was happy to be laughed at because he knew his fatness was his fortune. But is it really any worse than the way TV weight-loss programmes, of which there's an epidemic at the moment, treat obese people?
Purely for the purposes of research, I tuned in this week to ITV's The Biggest Loser, which also goes out on TV3. It was vile -- a repellent mix of cajoling, bullying, humiliation and physical punishment.
Between bouts of flailing around on rowing machines and being screamed at by narcissistic personal trainers, the obese contestants, split into teams of three, had to pull red London buses behind them on ropes, like athletes in the World's Strongest Man competition.
One of them collapsed in exhaustion afterwards and had to be given oxygen. "She's okay," a hard-bodied female trainer reassured everyone, "she's just strained a muscle". Phew, that's okay. At least it wasn't a heart muscle.
I'm no fitness guru but in which manual does it say pulling a bus is advisable for anyone, let alone someone carrying the weight of two average human beings?
RTE's Operation Transformation, which rather pompously styles itself as a weight-loss campaign for the nation instead of a reality show, has been a huge (no pun intended) hit, drawing a weekly audience of almost 500,000.
While it's not quite as grotesque as The Biggest Loser, it still makes you wonder how many of those viewers are tuning in to see the contestants triumphantly shedding the pounds, and how many simply to have a good snort at the fatties wheezing and whingeing their way up a hill.
You can't lay all the blame on the programme-makers; equal responsibility lies with the contestants, who seem happy to wallow in self-pity and engage in that modern television fad of blubbing like a baby at the slightest provocation.
This week The Biggest Loser featured the unedifying sight of a young Irishman called Gerard sniffling his way through a letter from his mother, while copious quantities of liquid snot dribbled down his lip. I have to admit even I laughed at that bit.
Being fat is not inherently funny. Being fool enough to demean yourself on TV, on the other hand, deserves only ridicule -- and contempt.
>GILLEN GOLD The sight of Doctor Who's Karen Gillan receiving her National Television Award for best female drama performance felt a bit like being sucked into one of those parallel worlds the Doctor sometimes visits.
Not that we've anything against Gillan, but really: the best performance of 2011? I know the NTAs are voted for by the British public and are more about popularity than quality, yet any awards ceremony that names The X Factor, which has had a disastrous year, best talent show and gives the vapid Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow the entertainment nod ahead of Harry Hill's TV Burp is reason to ponder which world it is we're living in -- the real one, or some alternative version.
Imagine that. Somewhere there might be an identical Earth on which McIntyre never got past his first pub gig and Simon Cowell is still working as a record company flunky. Beam me up, Scotty.
>AMERICAN Spiral Despite American audiences being reportedly less than impressed with the climax of the US remake of Danish thriller The Killing, moves are afoot to remake another Eurocop drama, gritty French series Spiral.
It's easy to see the appeal of a hard-edged show about shady, morally ambiguous, possibly corrupt cops. Except . . . American TV has already done one. It was called The Shield.
>big mouth Poor Ryan Tubridy can't open his mouth lately without someone getting on his case.
As you might have read in the Herald this week, the Irish modelling community had a pop at Tubs for asking Andrea Roche if Irish models tend to be "a bit chunkier" during their Late Late Show interview.
One model agency doyenne accused him of being "disrespectful". Come on, ladies, lighten up.
Let's face it it's a storm in a D-cup. Or perhaps if you're an Irish model, maybe a storm in a G-cup!