Cutting Edge was the first time I realized TV documentaries weren't all they appeared to be. Although its Channel Fours award winning whimsical documentary series it soon became clear it was also somewhat contrived, the under pressure production teams always chasing the ratings and so inventing scenes to make the shows more interesting. It wasn't the old documentary tricks like when the important phone call cometh the person waiting for it always seems to be by the phone with the camera crew, but a more fundamental erroneous subterfuge going on. They were quite simply fabricating whole shows. They are not doing that so much today as they got a serous telling off by the ombudsman and people were fired but they were back in the 1990s, yours truly the revelatory of the truth!
When I noticed that the guy portrayed as the branch manger of a local Tesco's store in the noted 'Complainers' episode from the early 1990s (one about the supposed real-life pensioner nimbi types that spent all day complaining about prices in shops and the way public services are run) was also the head of Tescos media department, featuring on the concurrently running BBC 2 documentary series back then called 'Tescos', and on at the same 9 p.m. timeslot, I was rather miffed at this blatant deception. The guy was effectively pretending to be the perfect branch manager on the Cutting Edge episode, able to deal with this persistent bloke who 'allegedly' came in the store everyday and moaned about beans being cheaper in Sainsbury's, but was really anything but the store manager, and with C4s knowledge, and so able to use the show to promote Tesco's as a business that cares on C4 and the BBC at the same time! Very clever by the all powerful supermarkets PR machine that he not only ran (why the supermarkets are the new masters of the universe now the banks have gone bust) but a rather cheap trick by all concerned. You could literally flick over to the other side and see the same guy as the media manager addressing a conference on the BBC2 series. It was a shameless PR stunt by the world's now second biggest company.
....Well I wasn't having any of this, and showing my own early signs of nimbisms, tapped out a letter on my first rusty typewriter to Channels Fours 'Right-to-Reply' customer TV complaint show to point out this outrageous duplicity. They wrote back and asked me to come on the show. I chickened out. But that was the day I realized the world wasn't the one I had understood for the last 24 years of my life time and writing was the only power the consumer had to kick back. Yes guys, you can clearly blame C4 for my ranting on dooyoo for the last seven years!
Its recent highlights...
The 'Pregnant Man' episode was broadcast last month, telling the background story of those iconic newspaper images of a man with a pregnant lump. But men cant have babies, of course, the 'he' turning out to be a she, a lesbian couple making baby, born as Tracey from Hawaii, now called Thomas from Denver, thirteen years of steroid and testosterone jabs giving her a nice bushy beard and bigger shoulders to accompany that lump. I thought she had swallowed her dumbbells! Although she cut off her boobs she kept her baby bits for practical reasons, in case she/he wanted kids, asking the question why she wanted to be a geezer in the first place. But she was determined to put the case she was a 'he', if you see what I mean, through the intriguing hour of television, even though she didn't have a todger and didn't intend to get one. This is America; surely she could have bought one in Wal-Mart next to the ammo! She/he didn't think having a 'todger' was required to be a man.
Although there were newspaper and media deals you didn't get the sense that money was what it was all about, a rather surprisingly conclusion, Thomas deliberately signing an exclusive deal with People Magazine for the first month of their kid's life that would be annulled if any other magazine got good pictures of the baby, perhaps a subconscious move to discourage themselves to seek the still interested probing paparazzi camera lens and media pack. The money did seem to be about paying for the kid to have a good life and so fair enough, the couple running a successful T-Shirt printing business high in the crisp clear air of the Colorado Rockies to pay the mortgage long before. Although Cutting Edge se tout to uncover the tawdry real story we expected, it refreshingly turned out they were a sweet couple and not some Hollywood freaks.
Cutting Edge delve into the lives of normal folk too, the episode on junior kick-boxing revealing the ultimate pushy parents, an uncomfortable look at kids doing what looked for all the world like cage fighting at the grand old age of 6-10, working class boys called Darren and Kyle, although padded up, kicking each other in the body and face to make their 'chavy' parents proud on the junior kick- boxing circuit. Something few knew existed. It was clear to all in 'Strictly Baby Fight Club' that the kids were doing it just to keep their parents proud of them and buying them stuff, the 'sprogs' effectively substitutes for Rotweilers in dogfights. It was uncomfortable viewing, not least because the parents were the ones shining the trophies.
Cutting Edge likes to dabble in celebrity, too, recent episodes on the Jackson's and Paul Burrell making for revealing exposes. The Jackson got involved in a publicity stunt where they went house hunting in Cornwall of all places, the idea being that the unusual site of everyone in the Jacko clan- but Michael-looking for a holiday cottage near Ilfracombe would generate a stir and great exposure. It was all nonsense of course and the Jackson's returned home to the heat of L.A pretty quickly, but it was a cute insight into the world's most famous black American family and the relative banality of their add existence, finally getting the limelight the boys deserve now that Michael is the black sheep and banished to oblivion. Tito was the most intriguing Jackson on show, wearing an array of Bolar hats, Chris Eubank style, he saying to be the English gentleman, but we know to hide his bald patch.
Burrell, on the other hand, is as enigmatic as ever, the site of his proud royalist father refusing to admit his son is gay the first moment of pathos in the intriguing two hour specials on the people/leaches around Diana at the time of her demise. Since that growing fame from Diana's death he has turned his back on his once close family and his working class roots, the documentary revealing a complex man who always felt better than the said family and those Hartlepool roots. It was made pretty clear in the enjoyable hour that Burrell saw himself more than the royal lackey he was and quickly became addicted to the limelight and celebrity he was nurturing for himself, upset when he was asked to leave Dianna's side on engagements, casting himself as her stand in husband and so expecting accompanying royal treatment.
More was revealed on his squirreling away of Diana's valuables and trinkets, a brown mahogany box 'allegedly', according to the show, the reason why the Queen suddenly 'remembered' that Diana had indeed asked Paul to look after some of the missing stuff under his floorboards in that extraordinary court trial of HMS V HMS. It's believed the box contained an account of one of the head butler's confessions on felating a prominent royal, yet another revelation on just how rampant homosexuality was and probably still is in the Palace staff, the show revealing 11 sailors were fired all-in-one day go for having a gay orgy on the Royal Yacht Britannia in the 1990s.
It really was an uninteresting hour on a guy who probably does have untold the dirt on the royals but also a guy that never wanted to give up the limelight, that gay man contradiction where they can only eventually 'out' themselves through their promiscuity and attention seeking, George Michaels downfall, also featuring on Cutting Edge. Next week it's the secret life of Dodi Fayed, a far more straightforward heterosexual playboy tale one suspects.
Other classic episodes include 'The 911 Faker', an amazing untold story over here, until now, of the Spanish woman who claimed to have survived the NY attacks in the WTC buildings when they were hit, lorded as a hero over in America after her self help groups gained national attention. It turns out the 44-year-old woman from Barcelona was a rich attention seeker who had done this stuff before in Spain. It was a fascinating hour of television on what unattractive and overweight people will do to get attention, often known as Munchausen's Syndrome in the female species, usually surfacing in child abuse cases through isolated mums.
'13 kids and I want More' and 'The Baby Bible Bashers' were deliberately antagonistic hours, one showing three different families in the UK with loads of kids, two of the three families on benefits , including an Asian clan of 14, the other am honest hard working dad family, conclusions easily drawn, the point of the show. The Asian dad had no problems of making his wife have baby after baby to grow his income from the dole.
'The Baby Bible Bashers' was a more American experience, a family of right wing Christian fundamentalist, running a Jew hating pro-life church in the mid west, the kids bought up to gay and Jew bash with their placards on American highways, an often funny but sad hour of television. I think Lois Theroux also did a show on them. Americans seem to take this kind of threat seriously and showed that anger on the show where as Brits ignore it and it eventually goes away. They really were an odd bunch with their interpretation of the bible. Gawd knows what their God make of it all...
'Bobski the Builder' was funny too, the tale of two builders, one Polish one English, two extensions and two houses, the premise being are Polish builders better than our lot. What we found out reinforced all the builder stereotypes-they are all indeed rubbish, however cheap. The Poles finished the shabby job but were always short of cash whilst the Essex firm quite the opposite, taking forever to get the work done, the white working-class males nearly cutting through a power cable and killing themselves through their worrying incompetence. I don't envy you if you have the builders in!
I'm all for a good documentary and once you realize these things can be rather contrived you can watch the more irreverent ones with a more open mind. It's great to know the facts behind the more serious news story and then also tack the spinnaker in the series and have some fun like they did before Christmas with Her Majesty's health & safety officers in the 'Fun Police' episode.
Channel Fours 'Dispatches' series is their more serious of their two flagship documentary shows and as long as you grasp that then both can be viewed in context. Dispatches had two intriguing shows on both the McCann's and the Shannon Mathews cases, Cutting Edge also looking at the Mathews case, the later one filmed and aired 'before' Shannon's mum was arrested for faking the whole thing, the show offering clues to that possibility for that fascinating hour of TV. The McCann's, as you would expect, had much more control over their hour and gave away less clues to their guilt or innocence, the difference between being well connected middle-class professionals and lower class oiks!
I think it's fair to say Cutting Edge is the best of the documentary series on terrestrial telly, the BBC and ITV long since cutting back on this type of informative TV, only Horizon and perhaps Lois Theroux's show offering any comparison. C4 are good are just very good at this stuff and I religiously watch Cutting Edge for its often abstract approach. When you watch ITV investigative stuff like 'Tonight', it always feels diluted and dumbed down for it's likewise core remedial audience, only really telling them what they already know on subjects they have already ranted about, immigration and speed cameras etc. But with Channel Four they like to make their documentaries their flagship stuff and live or die on that detail, however exaggerated the concept, but always deliver, and like a good reality TV show it's left to you "the viewer" to decide what's real and who is acting, as indeed was the case with Paul Burrell last week...
A-Z Cutting Edge documentaries
The 9/11 Faker
13 Kids and Wanting More
The Ambulance: 8 Minutes to Disaster
Baby Bible Bashers
Bobski the Builder
A Boy Called Alex
Cotton Wool Kids
Dana: The 8 Year Old Anorexic
The Fun Police
The Girls Who Were Found Alive
Gridlock and Road Rage
The Human Spider
The Jackson's Are Coming
Mum, Heroin and Me
Ninety Naps a Day
The Pregnant Man
The Prince Charles Generation
Rich Kid, Poor Kid
Scams, Fiddles and Honest Claims
Sex Change Soldier
Sex, Lies and the Murder of Meredith Kercher
Sleeping with my Sister
Special Needs Pets
Strictly Baby Fight Club
The Virgin Daughters
Who Killed the Playboy Earl?
Channel Four - 9pm Thursdays