Friday, November 09, 2007

Dead entertaining

From the Guardian's ArtsBlog.


Dead is the new alive, apparently. The font of former celebrities has run dry - we have gone through everyone who has ever been famous and are now having to rifle through the graveyards to see if there's anyone interesting there. (I can recommend Père Lachaise.)

This bout of necromania was brought to a head the other night with the juxtaposition of Gunther von Hagens's Autopsy: Emergency Room on Channel 4 and Virgin Radio's Dead of the Night, a post-midnight segment on the Geoff Show.

Dead of the Night is easily the more bizarre. The producer narrates the life of a late celebrity - Josephine Baker, the tragedian Aeschylus - over some rather dodgy chirpy violin music and then the lines are thrown open for listeners to phone in and guess how the person died. Rather forlorn-sounding men (almost always men) call up and halteringly venture causes of death: "Was it syphilis?" is usually the first suggestion. Congestive heart failure and lung disease are popular too. (Baker was pneumonia; as for Aeschylus, an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head, in case you care.)

The worrying thing is that no one - either callers or staff - thinks that this is at all bizarre. You can imagine a caller being told of a relative's death and going: "Hold on - don't tell me - was it syphilis?" The nonchalance makes it seem as if this is an expected extension of panel games and reality shows.

Gunter von Hagens is similarly making infotainment out of the infernal. His show featured a corpse being bisected with a giant saw, like a piece of meat at the deli counter. Hagens does not come close to normalising corpses or demystifying what goes on because he makes such a show of it; it is less post mortem, more post-Silent Witness.

There is apparently educational value, but the bisection and the naked model (there for a Heimlich manoeuvre demo, inter alia) are gratuitous. These showbiz flourishes, the audience, the ringmaster-doctor are rather nasty touches on what might otherwise have been an edifying display.

The Virgin show is very different from the Channel 4 show - you can imagine odd causes of death turning up on University Challenge or similar, and it's really just terminal historical curiosity. Autopsy: Emergency Room is the sort of sensationalism only achievable once every furrow of living celebrity has been ploughed and we feel the need to be shocked further.

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