Channel 4 reminds me of the Scandinavian fashion store Cos, by which I mean it used to be great and now really isn't

Why Am I Still Single and Eye Spy is my evidence for this.

Why Am I Still Single?
Eye Spy
Channel 4

Lately, Channel 4 reminds me of the Scandinavian fashion store Cos, by which I mean it used to be great and now really isn’t. Nothing seems to fit; everything feels just a little bit cheap and tatty. I visit only rarely, if at all. The other evening, I watched two of the channel’s latest shows – Why Am I Still Single? (26 June, 10.35pm) and Eye Spy (27 June, 10pm) – back to back. Afterwards, I felt precisely as I did the last time I was in a Cos changing room: a slight headache, low feelings, a crazed desire for alcohol and cake.

Why Am I Still Single? is a more prurient and less witty version of that old Channel 4 hit Wife Swap. Two singletons who’ve never met switch lives. They live in each other’s homes, meet each other’s friends and exlovers and visit each other’s workplaces. At the end of this, they hook up and unveil their “findings” face to face, a bit of tough talking that is supposed to help them date more successfully in future.

I’m guessing the film I watched is a pilot (it was screened as part of Channel 4’s “mating season”) and all I can say to those who might green-light a series is: please don’t. Thanks to reality television, we’ve gone as far as we possibly can with this kind of documentary. In front of the cameras, people no longer react; they perform, like over-sexualised monkeys.

Lex worked in advertising and Naomi was the world’s least-funny stand-up comedian. I loathed them both on sight. He was a manchild, reduced to hysterics by the sight of her vibrator (strange how quickly he found it). She was a gurning drivel-head who imagined she could tell how well endowed (or not) he was simply by examining his boxer shorts. You might think that from this low base things could only improve – but no. Down the hill we rolled, my queasiness rising with every tedious bump along the way.

Naomi was obsessed with masturbation. Did Lex indulge at work, she asked his colleague? Lex, meanwhile, was telling Naomi’s girlfriends about her vibrator over a pizza. He was so struck by this piece of pink plastic that, later on, when he confronted Naomi’s on-off boyfriend over a pool table, I half expected him to whip it out and use it to beat the recalcitrant fellow over the head.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, the upshot of this mutual “investigation” was that Naomi would do well to quit the smutty talk and Lex should lower his expectations a little (and, perhaps, learn not to rifle through the knicker drawers of potential girlfriends). Well, woo-hoo.

Eye Spy is Candid Camera for the tabloid age. It’s presented by Stephen Fry, who believes that most people behave less badly than the tabloids suggest. As it happens, I agree with him. But is the best way of trying to prove this to put them in difficult (and, to be honest, highly unlikely) moral situations and then secretly film them? I can’t think that it is. What do these stunts prove? Nothing.

In the first episode, an actor pretended to be a racist waiter abusing a couple in a restaurant (also actors, one of them was white and the other black). Naturally, the other customers at first took their lead from the couple, who, for the trick to work, had to remain mostly quiet and compliant throughout the waiter’s loopy and increasingly over-the-top attacks on them (though ultimately many of their fellow diners did weigh in on their behalf). Not only did the film fail to acknowledge this, it was impossible to judge how it had been edited and how audible the actors’ voices were.

Another test involved a boy in a wheelchair with a fake plaster cast on his leg. I wasn’t surprised that people walked straight past him – as one of them pointed out, the cast was so obviously bogus – and I felt sorry for the two poor saps who did offer to carry him up several flights of steps, only for the gleeful camera crew to appear, release forms presumably in hand.

I strongly dislike the feeling of judgement and entrapment that hangs over this series, a sententious and slightly creepy mood that persists even when people behave well. Given how much real injustice there is in the world, I’d have thought that Channel 4’s considerable resources could be put to far better use than on such a trashy, pernicious experiment as this.

Trading places: singletons Naomi and Lex. Photograph: Channel 4.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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