Stranger than fiction

Some men are better off living alone, as Bodmin Moor's eccentrics prove

Wonderland: the Man Who Eats Badgers BBC2

What do you keep in your freezer? The contents of mine are as follows: frozen peas (one packet), frozen chicken stock (one large tub), ice cream (four flavours). On Bodmin Moor, at the home of Arthur, a retired civil servant from Watford (23 January, 9.50pm), the contents of the family freezer were rather more outré - and, no, I don't mean he'd made the mistake of buying a job lot of canapés from Iceland Foods.

"Here's badger legs," he said, wielding the first of a series of leaden packages. "Hedgehog, fox, squirrel, dog . . ." Next, he pondered over a rigid pelt of grey fur, like a housewife who is wondering exactly how old some square of leftover lasagna is. "This is an otter," he said. Finally, he grabbed hold of . . . Oh, no. Look away, children. In his hands was a white barn owl (no discreet plastic wrapping, this time), stiff and cold, like a giant ice lolly, only with, er, feathers. "Very nutritious," said Arthur. He was practically smacking his lips at the prospect.

Many people mistakenly thought that the genius of The League of Gentlemen lay in its supreme weirdness; in fact, its brilliance was largely down to its unnerving closeness to a certain kind of real life, as I always claimed, despite the sneers of my metropolitan friends. But I bet they believe me now, eh? Royston Vasey lives!

Wonderland: the Man Who Eats Badgers was pure Royston Vasey, from the clandestine activities of the meat-obsessive Arthur (cf: Mr Briss the butcher) to the tuneless hymn-singing of Peter, an ageing farmer and lay preacher (even his teeth were not dissimilar to those of Bernice Woodall, Royston Vasey's hellfire-and-damnation Welsh vicar). The documentary was part of a series filmed on Bodmin Moor, which is admittedly not very northern, but the desolation was the same: battered caravans, fallen pylons, hunkered-down stone chapels. As the camera panned across the landscape, the grey sky roiling like the sea, it was as if a giant had recently passed by and kicked the place to pieces.

Clifford was on the run from ex-wives and - more chillingly - "ex-children". He spent his days on the moor, looking for its mysterious Beast. "Bodies," he said, "can disappear on Bodmin Moor any time." Was this a hint? I thought of Arthur's freezer.

What I loved about Daniel Vernon's film was the way that, having tracked down these misfits - his wildlife skills were easily as good as Clifford's - he found the invisible link between them: their irrefutably difficult relationships with women. This gave him his narrative. Peter's wife had killed herself, and existed for us only in a sweet, sorry photograph that curled at the edges. Clifford's had been ruthlessly excised from the script of his life on account of having a "totally different style" of living from him: no photographs for him, then, though he did have a special flashlight for stunning panthers. Arthur's wife spent the entire film in her bedroom, hiding from the smell of slow-bubbling badger. Would Arthur ever eat his wife's cat? "I'm in enough trouble, without eating her cat," he said.

Slowly, the documentary took on the texture of a mystery story. Would women ever return to this forgotten land? There was even a detective. Arthur had been getting crank calls. "You dirty, filthy, roadkill-eating c***," said the voice on the answering machine.

Perhaps because he was enjoying these calls so much, Arthur did not call in the police, but chose instead to use the services of a private investigator. This man - his upper lip so weirdly long and rounded that I began to wonder if at least one woman wasn't hiding beneath it - asked Arthur if he had any idea who might be making the calls. No, said Arthur. At which point our detective came to the conclusion that the villain could be "anyone": case closed. As for the mystery of the absent females, that was never solved, not explicitly. But the inescapable truth is that some men, even as their souls cry out for the balm of married love, are better off alone. Loneliness breeds eccentricity, and eccentricity breeds loneliness, and on and on until he is on his way to that cold, hunkered-down stone chapel for the very last time.

Pick of the week

Storyville – Jonestown: the World’s Biggest Mass Suicide
27 January, 10pm, BBC2
Account of events surrounding the deaths of 900 people.

28 January, 8.30pm, BBC1
Alex James snorted coke. Now he's in Colombia, investigating the trade.

30 January, 9pm, BBC2
Sci-fi for grown-ups. Well, in theory.

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 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer