Daytime TV: Naked truths

Gary Day enjoys the evolution behind why humans have no fur, but finds a Yorkshire tale far-fetched

March 12, 2009

The state of nudity", declared a talking head on Horizon (BBC Two, Tuesday 9pm), "is the state of being human." King Lear came to much the same conclusion. "Thou art the thing itself," he declared on seeing the nearly naked poor Tom on the heath.

"Unaccommodated man", he declaims, "is no more but such a poor, bare forked animal as thou art." And he proceeds to unbutton himself. In a storm. The silly old fool.

This is England. If you must take your clothes off, do it indoors. Always making sure a television crew are there first, of course. Phil, a data analyst, was one of a number who had answered an advert to appear in the programme. "I don't normally sit naked next to men," said Phil. Foyez, the man he was sat next to, stared fixedly at a spot on the sofa.

The aim was to explore our attitudes to nudity. But where was Germaine Greer? No show is complete without her input. Ah well. Everyone just had to manage the best they could without her.

Kath undressed in front of a two-way mirror. She was asked if she felt any discomfort. She did. But humans are creatures that can get used to anything. Even the cushion-clutching Lucy finally revealed all.

To test who was really comfortable in their own skin, participants were asked to go outside without a stitch and step into a waiting taxi. Most did, which caused a few heads to turn.

So the experiment proved what, exactly? That stress about nakedness is linked to sex. No surprises there, then. But the claim that nudity defines our humanity is more dubious. We can never truly bare ourselves. There is always another layer to come off, especially when we are naked. Lear's bare forked animal turns out to be Edgar playing the part of poor Tom, himself played by an actor and so on.

The programme was more interesting on how we lost our fur. It all started when our ancestors stood upright and began to range over long distances. This made us hot, but all that hair didn't allow the heat to evaporate.

And so Australopithecus was faced with a decision, made more difficult by the absence of Germaine Greer, who hadn't yet evolved. Take it easy or lose the sleek, glossy stuff.

Well, we know what happened. Goodbye pelt, hello perspiration. "Humans", said Professor Peter Wheeler drily, "are the sweatiest creatures in history." After that, sexual preference was for hairless males, which was good news for baldies.

Our ancestors eventually decided to cover themselves because going naked, as Dan Fessler put it, "was an incitement to sexual behaviour outside the principal union". But concealment meant we couldn't tell if potential partners were ready for a bit of rumpy-pumpy. The problem was eventually solved by 1970s fashions.

There were plenty of them on view in Red Riding (Channel 4, Thursday 9pm), the first in a trilogy about skulduggery in Yorkshire. Very few of the cast could manage the accent, but at least the weather was authentic. Brooding clouds, scouring winds and pelting rain.

These pastoral scenes, lacking only a raving Lear to complete them, were complemented by shots of abandoned cars, boarded-up terraces and heavily patterned wallpaper.

If only as much effort had gone into the plot as into the period detail. Eddie can't hack it in Fleet Street and returns to work on the Yorkshire Post. "What happened to all those novels you were going to write?" jeers the beer-soaked journalist Jack.

Eddie investigates the murder of a little girl. He thinks it is linked to similar, unsolved cases. He tells the chief of police, who treats him to some plain Northern speaking.

Undeterred, Eddie continues digging. He wants to uncover the state of being human. Vested interests would rather he didn't. So he is treated to some plain Northern violence. Two policemen slam a car door on his hand. Yeow! Try picking up your spade now, Eddie. Stone me, he does.

The two policeman redouble their efforts. They strip Eddie, chain him up, beat him and then throw him out of a moving van with the words, "This is the North. We do what we want." Expect a drop in holiday bookings to Yorkshire this year.

Picking himself up, Eddie staggers off to shoot John Dawson, who is responsible for the murder of the girls. The police know he's guilty, but indulge his "little weakness" because they stand to benefit from the shopping centre he is building.

The plot had more holes than Eddie had bruises. An entire community that connived in child murder just so that they could have a Dorothy Perkins on their doorstep? Germaine Greer's presence in the programme would have made more sense.

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