TV & Radio
In the backstage toilets of a community theatre in south-west London, a group of amateur actors is taking time out from rehearsals to photograph poo - their own poo.
To make their messy mission easier, they've been issued with clear plastic lunchboxes and are taking the photos through the lids. It occurs to me that this would be a very bad day to take the wrong lunchbox home by mistake.
In due course they gather around a man with huge biceps stretching at the sleeves of his eggshell blue polo shirt. He has blown-up copies of all the poo portraits, and is showing them to the TV cameras and the group.
"Who did this one?," demands Dr Christian, holding up a photo that looks like a kilo of Maltesers that's been dropped on to concrete from a second-storey window. A part-time thespian raises a sheepish hand. "Well, you need to drink a lot more water, and lay off the takeaways after the pub."
Making reference to a gruesome document known as the Bristol Stool Chart, the good doctor then comments on the shape, colour and consistency of everyone else's sample in turn, suggesting appropriate lifestyle and dietary changes. In living rooms all around the world, home viewers are in the unusual position of contemplating what secrets might be revealed by their own poo.
Welcome to Embarrassing Bodies, a hit British TV series that looks at private health issues in an extremely public way, with no orifice left unexposed to the cameras and a good deal of extremely graphic content, including extensive surgery segments.
It's a show where anything scabby, seeping or severely inflamed gets top billing, yet it's unexpectedly compelling viewing, inspiring a curious mix of anxiety and empathy as we are reminded of the thousand natural shocks to which flesh is heir.
Still, you can't help but wonder - does this series represent some sort of ultra-intrusive nadir for reality television? Are the featured guests so desperate to appear on television that they'll do anything, even poo in a lunchbox or reveal that their bum is covered in boils?
Actually, no. Embarrassing Bodies is notable for its absence of fame-seeking airheads. For the most part, what we have here are people driven demented by intractable ailments, seeking free help from the show's specialists.
If that means having high-definition footage of their haemorrhoids beamed into living rooms around the globe, it's a price they're prepared to pay.
Dr Dawn. Dr Pixie. Dr Christian. The three host GPs sound like representatives of opposing New Age and religious standpoints. And they clearly love their work. Dr Dawn blathers to camera while undergoing a mammogram. Dr Christian nips into a porn-filled cubicle with a plastic jar to give a sperm sample. Dr Pixie, meanwhile, is fond of dusty 1950s euphemisms, talking about "problems down below" or "issues with the old waterworks" in a soft Scottish brogue as HD cameras zoom in on someone's unspeakably private affliction.
We meet a woman who undresses each night with the lights out because she doesn't want her boyfriend to see her inverted nipple, yet here she is, displaying said nipple under bright studio lighting to the entire world on mainstream TV.
A rugby team assembles in the shower room to debunk myths regarding penis size; I am delighted to discover that the average penis is really rather puny. Dodgy visual puns abound: Dr Christian takes men with low sperm counts to a paintball centre to "see if they're firing blanks".
Blood. Guts. Poo. Scrotal cysts, prolapsed rectums, entire skifields of dandruff. People who've headed off to Thailand for cut-price liposuction and returned with misshapen abdomens as well as the usual sunburn. For the squeamish, the show is a nightmare. You don't want to be eating your dinner while someone has their veruccas prodded with an ice-block stick.
But more importantly, this show saves lives. Embarrassing Bodies helps reduce misinformation and stigma surrounding many conditions, with GPs, specialists and on-line forums all reporting a significant spike in people seeking advice and treatment after specific illnesses have been covered
Varicose veins, impotence, acne, excess hair. Alopecia, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, incontinence. The show makes the point that 70 per cent of us will experience at least one such illness at some point in our lives, and it's better to seek professional help than suffer in silence.
Launched in 2007, Embarrassing Bodies draws more than four million weekly viewers in the UK alone, with extensive international screenings on top of that. Success has spawned multiple spin-offs, focusing on the many and varied humiliations associated with Fat Bodies, Kids' Bodies and Teenage Bodies. There's even a Skype-assisted interactive version called Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic.
Series Three of the original show currently screens on BBC Knowledge on Tuesdays at 8.30pm. And an Aussie version has just launched at 10pm the same night on TV2, providing the hosts an opportunity to employ groanworthy "problems down under" puns for assorted trouser-based afflictions.
It can only be a matter of time before there's a local version. Embarrassing Kiwi Bodies, anyone? If it comes to pass, I will be watching it, and I'd encourage you to do the same.
This is a show that will almost certainly ruin your dinner, but it's one of the few that might also save your life.
- Sunday Star Times