To The Main Act!
Gustavo Lorca, deliberates over TV's love affair with the modern day freak.
Irwin: 'Guess who?'
Entertainment has always been synonymous with exploitation - and obviously that is both right and proper. The Victorian era, which was notoriously miserable and bleak for the vast proportion of the populace, would quickly have become intolerable without those many and varied public distractions involving the physically different, from Lentini the Three-legged wonderman to the great John Merrick himself.
Times have changed since then, but fortunately for us, not very much.
The freak show is currently undergoing something of a renaissance in the UK, thanks to a commendable lack of imagination in televised programming. Needless to say, it's proving just as popular this time around.
It is no surprise that most people today feel uncomfortable with the notion of treating human beings as zoo animals. As a result our freaks are made more palatable by being dramatised or contextualised to suit our needs. The nation prefers the exploitation of some oddity of character rather than form.
When BBC 2 broadcasts a programme about shoplifters, we allow ourselves to believe that there is some genuine sociological value in trawling through the splintered lives of these misbegotten souls. Patently there isn't, but the sweetly graphic illustration of an existence so woefully mismanaged is a fine salve for our own bruised spirits.
Perhaps the most popular ruse in the programmers arsenal (they love a ruse!) is simply to employ some hapless dope with a genuine love of their topic, then stand back and watch as they prance and whelp with delight while sifting through the pointless minutiae of their chosen field. This must be so, how else would a show like 'Time Team' ever get made? One can scarcely imagine that there is a significant demographic out there with a consuming interest in the slow, laborious exhumation of some plague victims turds or crockery. But that look of exultation in the eyes of Tony Robinson, or any one of his hirsute cohorts, emerging from some rain sodden pit, brandishing a lump of filth apparently rich in history, thats what reels 'em in. Naturally the same applies to anything involving Bill Oddie.
Undoubtedly, the man who rules this genre is that mullet-toting, crocodile-worrier, himself, Steve Irwin.
As Irwin lies nostril deep in the muck and stale of Africa's fauna, eyes aghast at the sight of a crocodile ripping chunks of flesh from the bloated corpse of a hippo he turns to the camera and honestly states: 'this is the greatest moment of my life'. You could almost hear the muted whooping of his delighted wife.
Irwin has made it a life mission to hunt down and antagonise all of the world deadliest creatures. His patent brand of on-screen lunacy has proved so successful that it is now spawning it's own imitators. The most significant pretender to the throne is fellow snake goader/ impersonator, Mark O'Shea (of 'O'Shea's Dangerous Reptiles' fame), whose televisional bunglings are very reminiscent of the early Irwin work.
It's too soon to tell whether O'Shea will fulfill the promise of his alarming televisual debut, but one thing is for certain, there'll be no shortage freakery on our screens for some time come.