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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.