Daytime TV: Excess baggage

Gary Day on Henry VIII's appetite, the malaise of teenage drunkenness and pro-anorexia websites

April 16, 2009

"Henry the Eighth is the only king whose shape you remember," barked David Starkey at the start of his study of the monarch who could not say "no" to the offer of a second helping (Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant, Channel 4, Monday 6 April 9pm). Was this to be a history of obesity? David refers to his own love of home-made lemon cake with gooey icing.

But no, it was to be a history of David's relationship with Henry, which began in 1964 with an essay on Lady Margaret Beaufort. She was Henry's grandmother, and not a particularly doting one, as she entered his date of birth incorrectly in her Book of Hours. Henry, you see, was not meant to be king. It was his elder brother Arthur who was to accede to the throne. But he died of natural causes, which, given the bloody nature of Tudor politics, was almost cause for gratitude.

David is strong on family relationships. He can tell you the third cousin of the half-nephew of an obscure Yorkist, which may be informative but is not necessarily illuminating. Henry fails to emerge from the knot of intrigue and a tangle of relatives that David dishes up. The delivery doesn't help. No matter whether he is describing John Skelton's precepts for the young prince or Perkin Warbeck's ambitions for the crown, David sounds the same. A voice like the swish of a cosh.

Monotone he may be, but monochrome he most definitely is not. David is a peacock. Browns and yellows abound, all complementing his tortoiseshell specs. But a white mackintosh? That is not a colour to associate with David for oh so many reasons. Red would have been much better. Ask any Lancastrian.

The real question of this programme was not how Henry became a tyrant but why David is so fascinated with him. Could there be parallels in their lives? David is not an epicure like Henry but, as his victims on The Moral Maze may testify, he can be every bit as terrifying. This was only the first episode, so things can only get better. Mind you, that's what they said when new Labour came to power.

The Hospital (Channel 4, Tuesday 7 April 9pm) was a sober look at teenage drunkenness. A nurse, Naomi Cuthbert, was everything David wasn't. Herself. She was tired, strained and struggling for answers. Why were so many young people arriving in Accident and Emergency in a state of advanced inebriation? There was a shot of a girl in a red dress staggering down a corridor before collapsing. When medics picked her up, she screamed abuse and kicked them.

"We used to get excited by a stabbing or a shotgun wound," said Naomi, in an observation that may or may not say something about human nature, "but not now." Jake was sitting in a bar when a man came in and used a broken bottle to make his face look like a Cubist portrait. A Tudor would have paled at the sight, but not Jake's girlfriend, who twiddled a strand of hair and told the nation that she'd been going out with him for only three weeks.

Then the adverts. "You deserve a good night's sleep," said one. What, after that sight? But the remark found a resonance in a later comment by Naomi. "These youngsters demand to be seen immediately. Even if there's nothing really wrong with them. They don't say, 'I understand you are busy and doing your best' but 'it's my right to be treated now'."

Naomi's worry is that having to deal with teenage excess diverts resources from those who really need them. Although the health service is supposed to care for everyone equally, "some cases are more deserving than others". Despair suffuses Naomi's features. "We now have a subclass", she opines, "that is completely dysfunctional." What can be done?

It's not simply a moral problem. Some teenagers may indeed choose to behave badly - when haven't they? - but regularly getting pissed and ending up in casualty points to a deeper malaise. So, too, does the huge increase in anorexia, a topic explored by Fearne Cotton in The Truth about Online Anorexia (ITV1, Thursday 9 April 9pm).

Did I say "explored"? Sorry. What we had here was nothing more than an opportunity for Fearne to look pretty: for Fearne to look pretty while being shocked; for Fearne to look pretty while being told that she is a role model; for Fearne to look pretty while comforting a bereaved mother; for Fearne to look pretty while doing a photo shoot for the cover of Cosmopolitan.

We heard very little from the sufferers themselves, and anyone who threatened to say something sensible was quickly dispatched. Nothing was to distract us from Fearne's perfect form, which can only add to the misery of those girls with eating disorders.

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