Saturday, 26 March 2011

Katie: My Beautiful Friends

Katie: My Beautiful Friends, Channel 4, Tuesday Women in Love, BBC4, Friday Midsomer Murders, ITV1, Wednesday.

What threatened to be yet another gawp at disfigurement, ended on a note of uplifting hope Reviewed by Matthew Bell Art, to misquote Keats, can be boiled down to two things – truth and beauty. Without one or the other, art isn't art at all, and the best usually has both. The hitch comes in the definition of beauty (and truth, for that matter, but we'll leave that to the philosophers). It's easy to identify in a painting, or a landscape, but what about in a person?

This is the question at the heart of Katie: My Beautiful Friends, a new series about people with disfigurements. Katie Piper is the former model who was permanently disfigured in an acid attack three years ago. Her career had – I don't think it's controversial to say – been built on her looks. All that was gone. Piper's story was told in a Cutting Edge documentary two years ago. We rejoin her as she sets up a support network for other, similarly blighted, young people. You have to admire anyone who, instead of slinking off into obscurity, launches themselves back into the spotlight.

To be frank, though, you do wonder what kind of person flops on their couch to watch an hour of disfigurement. A ghoulish cottage industry in freak-show telly seems to have sprouted in recent years, often, though by no means always, on the trashier channels. The opening 15 minutes did little to dispel the suspicion that this was another chance for mawkishness. It even managed to be boring as well as voyeuristic as we followed Katie as she set up a charity – surely the most tedious rite of the modern celebrity.

Happily, the narrative moved on to meeting some of the people Katie aims to help, and, suddenly, the programme was passing the Keats Test. For here was the unsavoury truth about our pursuit of beauty – that for as long as people have had eyes, the visual is what we talk about when we talk about beauty. Now, more than ever, we are obsessed with looks, and looking good.

Which is a problem if, like 22-year-old Chantelle, you have a cluster of overactive blood vessels in your nose that make it the size, shape and colour of a beetroot. No matter how beautiful her soul – and she was adorable: shy and mournful – people in the street will always stop and stare. So she never leaves the house, except when she can't bear the boredom any more. The scene of her fleeing a shopping mall in tears was unbearable. The only compensation for Chantelle is the brilliance of modern plastic surgery. Episode one ended with her enduring a life-threatening operation. Fingers crossed for episode two.

Looks are one of the few things that don't hold anyone back in the novels of D H Lawrence. They've got class, morality, religion, and all the other hang-ups of the post-Victorian age to grapple with. This they do to perfection in William Ivory's superb adaptation of Women in Love, an amalgam of that novel with The Rainbow, which Lawrence had originally intended to publish as one.

Rosamund Pike is destined to replace Helena Bonham Carter as our best ivory-cheeked actress, and was perfectly cast as Gudrun, the more ebullient, but wide-eyed of the Brangwen sisters. With beautiful cinematography, a good pace and a minimum of mood music, those who said Ken Russell's 1969 version couldn't be bettered will have to think again.

The script wasn't bad either – getting Lawrence fit for the screen is an unenviable task. "I don't care what other people think," says Gudrun as she embarks on an affair with her older, married art teacher. "Well perhaps you should," snaps Ursula, "since the world is full of other people." And there were some subtle cinematic touches too, such as the crate of apples that Ursula grasps for during a knee trembler with her soldier lover. Fruitfulness? Autumn? Forbidden sin? It worked as a symbol for any and all.

No such finesse in the new series of Midsomer Murders, which stars a new DC Barnaby. I was less tempted to lob my remote at Neil Dudgeon than at smug John Nettles. Otherwise the cream-teas-and-crime formula is untouched – promising much, delivering little. In case you're just back from the Moon, producer Brian True-May is to step down after saying there are no ethnic minorities in his show, because he wants to preserve its "Englishness". If only he would concentrate on making the plots less ludicrous and the dialogue less excruciating, I wouldn't have had to entertain myself playing the dreadful game he spawned – spot the ethnic minority.

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