Breaking the silence

Stephen Fry proves that celebrity docs don't have to be cynical or simplistic

<strong>Stephen Fry

I'm allergic to documentaries that are presented by celebrities. Not long ago, one of the Geldof progeny made a film about the veil which, simplistic to the point of insult, so enraged me that I had a nasty dream about her involving a burqa and various garden tools. (I'd better not say more; I don't want Bob coming round and shouting the odds.) Then again, some "celebrities" - admittedly it feels like a minority, these days - are people whose names we know because they're good at something. Stephen Fry falls into this camp, and he's good at not only one thing, but everything (don't all shout "Apart from theatre work": that's mean). Even so, I wasn't predisposed to like HIV and Me (2 and 9 October, 9pm). Fry is not HIV-positive, so its title seemed narcissistic, unless it was just a cynical hint that he was about to reveal otherwise, and thus grab all the voyeurs who get off on celeb misery come test result time.

But perhaps it's me that's cynical. Once I had seen the film, my feeling was that if even one fetid Jeremy Kyle addict saw a trailer for HIV and Me (the one I caught showed Fry taking a blood test) and was sufficiently intrigued to tune in, this was cause for celebration. A weird radio silence surrounds HIV, although infection rates even in the UK are rising rapidly - a silence that is contributing to complacency and, ultimately, death rates. Fry's film was informative and fearless. It was also deeply human, its horrifying statistics brought to life by people brave enough to say that they have the virus on television. I loved the way Fry talked to them. In contrast to most patronising hospital-touring politicians, he doesn't adjust his accent when talking to those who didn't, unlike him, attend public school or Cambridge. He also exudes a great and unfakeable kindness.

Why aren't gay men using condoms? Why are infection rates in Africa higher than in Europe? Because some gay men think that drugs will save them and, worse, regard HIV-positive status as a badge of honour; because in sub-Saharan Africa, 20-40 per cent of adults have multiple or concurrent partners, a pattern that increases the rate of infection more drastically than serial monogamy. These facts are uncomfortable, but Fry was unwilling to dance round them. The consequences of doing otherwise are too great. Many patients are resistant to the drugs; others will succumb to Aids-related illnesses in spite of them.

If this makes his film sound relentless, however, that's wrong. There were blackly funny moments, too. In the UK, half of the 7,000 new infections every year are contracted through straight sex. Fry investigated a case in Doncaster where a nightclub bouncer who died of Aids was feared to have infected hundreds of local women. Were Doncaster's females all reckless binge drinkers? "It's worse in Barnsley," read the newspaper headline.

I mentioned Jeremy Kyle, who has been much in the news: a judge called his ITV show "a human form of bear-baiting". So, it's a good time for Jennifer Saunders to launch her Thursday-night (9pm) comedy The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle (Vyle/Kyle . . . do you see what she did there?). But there are two problems. The first is that Kyle's show - so aggressive, so outlandish - is probably beyond satire. Second, Saunders and her co-writer, the TV psychologist Dr Tanya Byron, have dished up a quite outstandingly lumpen script, and have peopled it with stock types whose tics are so munificent, you can feel your migraine aura coming on even as you watch.

Chief among them is Miranda Richardson as Helena, Vivienne's ruthless but inept producer. The "twist" is that, behind the scenes, Helena and Vivienne are as dysfunctional as the emotionally incontinent morons ("I want a vagina but I can't kick the crack") they deride on set. So Vivienne has an apparently gay husband, and Helena's child spends so little time with her that she speaks only Spanish, like her nanny. Laugh count: zero. If Saunders and Byron were ever to appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show it would say beneath their names: "We want a smash hit, but no one except our husbands and the fools who commissioned us thinks we are funny."

Pick of the week

Arena: Tribute Bands – Into the Limelight
6 October, 10.30pm, BBC2
Uplifting film with Keith, a man who pretends to be Kurt Cobain.

The Cult of the Suicide Bomber
Continues 8 October, 8pm, Channel 4
Robert Baer, ex-CIA agent, looks at what motivates these attackers.

30 Rock
11 October, 10.45pm, Channel 5
America’s hottest new comedy.

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 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever