Someone, somewhere, high up in TV land is spitting chips. Last week the BBC unveiled an ingenious new series called Doctor in the House, in which an enormously tall GP (Dr Rangan Chatterjee) went and lived with a family for a month in order to give them a full medical MOT of the sort that you can’t get in your standard 7 minute consultation (if, that is, you can get a consultation). It would have been a thought-provoking, topical experiment – Supernanny MD – had it not been for the fact that on Tuesday, Channel 4 launched Doctor in Your [sic] House. This differed from Doctor in the House by precisely one word and not much else. It even had an enormously tall GP (Dr Xand Van Tulleken) who went and lived with a family and so on.
Not only did this little case of crossed wires make both channels look stupid – come on guys, would a phonecall really hurt? – but it was also rather unfortunate, because though Doctor in Your/The House were the same programme, both tapped in to a particular modern paradox. This is that at a time when medical science can tell us more than ever about what is wrong with out lifestyles, most of us choose to ignore it. Even when the doc is camped in the front room, as he was here, effectively blaring down a megaphone and waving a fluorescent banner that yes, you, you momentous, NHS budget-sapping ninny, that second bottle of wine with the week’s third korma is killing you, we still, somehow, find ways to stick our fingers in our ears. The most oft-repeated image from both programmes was of Doctors Rangan and Xand looking somewhere between confused and utterly exasperated. Which, I imagine, is exactly how their series producers looked when they found out that a facsimile of their show had launched in the same week.
Why might this same idea have appeared twice at the same time? Perhaps because Doctor in the House and Doctor in Your House both nodded to another pervasive fear, which is that doctors are not what they used to be. I have heard tales of a time when families had a local physician who knew them well, would pop round at any time for solace or even treatment and would be thanked, instead of assaulted, for doing so. I don’t know if these halcyon days ever actually existed but given today’s struggle to get an appointment for a fortnight unless your tonnage has just fallen out, you can see why people might hark back to yesteryear.
What Doctor in the/your House showed was that actually the problem is not the doctors, it’s us. The medical complications experienced by both families in these shows were broadly similar – they ate rubbish, drank flagons of booze or sugary pop, didn’t exercise enough or at all and were basically bunging up their arteries with a Lusitania sized, chocolate-sprinkled fatberg of their own making. I’m pretty sure that if they had told a GP in a 7-minute consult their real behaviour, he would have prescribed the same type of lifestyle change that both of these live-in GPs did.
It’s just that people don’t seem to pay their doctors’ lifestyle advice much heed, even when said Doctor is hanging around the corridors like the smell of chloroform. The capacity of the human animal for self-destructive behaviour is astonishing. It occurred to me that actually, even if every single one of us had a Doctor permanently stationed in the/your house, and if they showed a version of this programme every single night of the week until Christmas, we’d still all sail along as if things were fine, until such time as they weren’t. (And yes, that penetrating observation took shape midway through a second glass of wine and a Dime bar).
After a successful pilot earlier in the year Channel 4 have decided to go full fathom on their ‘Secret Life of’ Series, in which they pepper a nursery with fixed cameras and let behavioural psychologists loose on the footage they gather of a group of unsuspecting young children. This is really Kids Say the Funniest Things or Child’s Play but with Noel Edmonds replaced by someone with a social science degree. Still, it is tremendous fun, particularly if you have a young child as I do and have no idea what they get up to in school, other than losing a ridiculous amount of clothes.
This week’s Secret Life moved on to five years olds, an age at which we were told ‘more socially complex’ behaviour starts to emerge. This assertion was slightly undermined by the following exchange:
Teacher: “If you could change one thing in the whole world, what would it be?”
Five Year Old: “How would I know? I’m a five year old.”
But in the main the five year olds exhibited behavioural traits that were hardly complex – they were precisely the sort you’d see in an office on any given day, when someone’s brought in some birthday cake and leaves it in the staff kitchen to be ‘shared’. To whit: people don’t like it when they don’t get what they want; men are worse at resisting temptation than women; people don’t care about doing wrong, but they do care about being caught; if you’re going to lie you need to lie convincingly.
The Secret Life nursery is really just another version of TV’s great ‘social experiment’ fallacy, one which was born with the Big Brother house. This, by the way, is probably why Secret Life works – though we’re fed up of it now Big Brother is the most successful global TV invention of the last 25 years. The reason Secret Life is palatable where BB is not, is that in children immoral behaviour, creative lying and telling on our friends is cute. In adults it’s so predictable it’s become tiresome.