The main theme of Michael Mosley’s latest Horizon documentary, Are Health Tests Really a Good Idea? was that if you look hard enough for problems, chances are you’ll find them. A hundred years ago if a doctor really wanted to know what was wrong with you he had to wait until you died and then chop you up. Now medicine has moved in to the realms of Minority Report, with a battery of tests able to tell you, if you’re rich enough to afford them, that you’re in grave danger of being in grave danger at some point in the future.
Looking at bowel cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and several of the other big beasts of the impending doom world, Mosley showed how anyone with a couple of million dollars worth of imaging equipment and some DNA profiling can practically guarantee that your demise is more imminent than you’d like it to be. Rumours of your death, it turns out, have not been exaggerated, they’ve actually been severely underplayed. Yet no one likes to be told that they’re dying, even though it’s the one thing you can say for sure that all of us are doing all of the time – Mosley’s speeches to camera when he discovered that yes, he is more likely than some to get heart disease as his father did and no, there’s not much he can do about it, were particularly moving given his usual bushy-tailed curiosity.
There was a slight irony in that what Mosley learnt – we worry unnecessarily about our health, and that in turn can distract cash and attention away from the people who actually need treatment now – he’s also in a small part responsible for. In the last couple of years Mosley’s generally excellent documentaries as well as his series Trust Me I’m a Doctor have had me power-fasting, doing lung-busting bursts of intensive exercise, trying to work standing up and endeavouring to change my personality type from its natural vicious pessimism to whatever is the opposite (grinning loon, One Show Presenter). In all of these films he has submitted himself to a barrage of tests. He has been wired up, plugged in and, I assume, subjected to enough low-level radiation to grow a second head. So for him to come to us now and say, “Sorry, maybe we’ve overdone this testing thing and we should all just chillax,” felt a little rich (I lit up a Cohiba and ate deep-fried mozzarella sitting down in silent protest.)
I suspect Mosley will be much more concerned at the thought that if he is going to cark it, the last images of him that have been committed to film will be footage taken from the inside of his bowels. For our delectation and education, in Are Health Tests Really a Good Idea? he gamely submitted to some kind of prolonged anal probing that’s supposed to tell you if you’ve got bowel cancer. This led to the best line of dialogue committed to television this year so far, from the mouth of a nurse looking at a screen: ‘here is your beautiful rectum.’ Mosley squirmed, probably for many different reasons, while thinking no doubt, ‘At last! A title for my autobiography.’ The bowel-vision test is coming to the NHS next year, available to everyone over 55. I wonder how many people will take it given one, this documentary and two the over-riding English fear of embarrassment.
That – embarrassment – was basically the subject of Very British Problems, a flimsy Channel 4 silly-season reworking of a well-known Twitter account. The usual celebrity talking heads – Jonathan Ross, James Corden – were rolled out to pick apart the same punctilios that observational humour has been picking apart since we all started doing them: queuing, apologising, social awkwardness, despair at small talk and so on. No doubt future episodes will feature some rib-tickling apercus about our obsession with the weather.
Jane Austen, The Grossmiths, Wodehouse, Galton and Simpson, even Corden himself in Gavin & Stacey have said more about British foibles, and said it with greater humour and perception, than anything here. I would also question whether the ‘Problems’ on display were distinctively British at all, given the general meaninglessness of most national stereotypes, but that would be to grant Very British Problems a credence it doesn’t deserve. It left me wondering how it came to the screen in the first place – surely a renosed Twitter account is a little lightweight for Channel 4, who earlier this year ran a big ad campaign claiming that it was ‘born to take risks.’
Anyway, I would suggest that Britons face far greater problems than the piddling pub chat on show in Very British Problems. Problems like the frankly shameful behaviour of the group of teenagers from Bohunt secondary school in Are Our Kids Tough Enough: Chinese School. This is another spurious social experiment in the name of entertainment that has imported a group of Chinese teachers and given them four weeks to impart the ways, and grades, of Confucianism on a bunch of recalcitrant adolescents. Two weeks in to their visit and there’s been a complete breakdown of discipline, the Chinese teachers utterly bewildered as the English kids make a pretty good fist at incorporating everything that’s wrong with British society in to a single maths lesson.
I don’t want to come over all sanctimonious – I’m sure Mr Alford, if he’s reading, will remember throwing me out of French lessons repeatedly for being precisely the kind of conceited wazzock I’m busy decrying. But I’m old and dull now so I’m allowed to roll tired eyes at errant youth, and I found the sight of a group of young people taking such pride in parading their ignorance and distaste for learning rather miserable. The Chinese teachers were reduced to tears. They felt ashamed that they hadn’t done their jobs properly. I would suggest that Chinese School showed both a real British problem, as well as a cause for genuine embarrassment.