Breast fest

Television - Andrew Billen on how we are living through boob-infested days

Not since News at Ten in the early 1980s freeze-framed Diana Spencer walking upstairs to check if a nipple could be glimpsed down the decolletage of a particular frock has factual television paid so much attention to breasts. The past two weeks have been a breast fest. A fortnight ago, Sky One got away with a surprisingly well-judged documentary, Breasts Uncupped, repeated last week, which looked at the tissue from an exclusively female perspective and was marketed as the channel's contribution to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Then came Brand New Bra, in which Channel 4's semi-resident inventors, Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, took it upon themselves to invent a better bra for the fuller figure. This was a follow-up to a documentary shown two years ago, which left the fate of their Bioform bra in the hands of a neurotically cautious MD from Charnos. This programme charted the Bioform's triumphant entry into the shops last month.

Next to this innovation, all those posters advertising the new "Variable Cleavage" Wonderbra should pale. The Bioform is the application of technology to the century-old problems of sore strap lines, aching breasts and wiring that comes apart in the washing machine. "There's no science in the bra," said Seymour, shaking his head, but we were soon familiarised with concepts such as "ouch zones", "east/west spheres", "creeping", "polypropylene over-moulding" and "soft elastomer support". The result, so the market research says (although a friend of mine who has tried one disagrees), is a bra that can withstand breast bounce of up to 20 Newtons and offer tons more comfort.

Charnos's worry-guts boss finally allowed his cup to runneth over at the Lyon Lingerie Fair: "We've not invented a cure for cancer. We've not solved third-world debt. We've got a new bra, for Christ's sake. But it's a hell of a bra," he enthused. But Dispatches (Thursday 2 November, 10pm, Channel 4) suggested that cancer and bras should not be so lightly contrasted. The opening image of Brand New Bra had been of a cross-country team of topless women frolicking bra-free in a sylvan glade. It was to this prelapsarian dawn that Dispatches wanted us to return. Its prophet was Sydney Singer, who had worked in Fiji and noticed that breast cancer rates were low and that women did not wear bras. "If there's no breast cancer, there are no bras," he said.

One obstacle to taking this Eureka-like conclusion seriously was that we were never told about the medical qualifications of Singer, an American with the hectoring style of a TV evangelist. Another obstacle was that Dispatches soon confessed that virtually all breast cancer experts dismissed Singer's ideas as unscientific. The best alibi it could find was the Glasgow-based inventor of the "Chronobra", which measures breast temperature. He found that pre-cancerous breasts were half a degree centigrade warmer than healthy breasts. So, we were invited to deduce, if bras keep breasts cosy, they cause cancer. There seemed to be an undistributed middle in this proposition, as we linguistic philosophers say.

But the bra was not out of the dock yet. New charges were levelled - namely, that it increases the breast pain endured by a remarkable two in five women, and that it encourages the formation of breast cysts suffered by 7 per cent. The programme persuaded two doctors to devise a six-month trial of 100 women, who would wear a bra for three months, then go braless for another three. The verdict was again ambiguous. Post-menopausal women reported no easing in pain from not wearing a bra, and only 7 per cent of the pre-menopausal group found any real difference. The study yielded no useful statistics about cysts at all.

The difference between Dispatches and Brand New Bra was that the latter had a real story to tell. Nevertheless, Dispatches had some good moments. I enjoyed the Playtex bra-fitting tutor who presented a droopy future for the well-endowed model placed at the front of the classroom. "Do you think this lady should go without a bra?" she asked the class, who shouted back the correct answer: "Oh no she shouldn't." "If she let the breast drop from not wearing a bra, and she starts breast-feeding, [with] the weight of the milk in the breasts, it's going to be an even worse scenario, isn't it?" she went on, with an impeccably flawed logic that ignored her own chief executive's admission that, because the breast is not muscle, keeping it toned is impossible.

Both programmes took the precaution of having women commentators. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a lot of men involved in both stories, from the lugubrious bra manufacturers to the cancer doctors. I'd be fascinated to know how the viewing figures broke down between the sexes. We men are living through boob-fixated days, as the cover of any men's monthly will confirm, and these programmes offered their share of fuller-fronted females squeezing in and out of corsetry. It is always unwise, however, to impugn motives. I'd like to think these programmes had the welfare of women foremost in their hearts, or their cross-your-hearts.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.