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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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