Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Slough of Despond

As mentioned here previously, one of my favourite types of reality TV show is the sort that dresses itself up as social experiment. Never have we learnt so little than by watching a show which claims it's trying to educate, and not simply to entertain. So I was particularly pleased to see the start of BBC2's 'Making Slough Happy' last night, which billed itself as "a uniquely ambitious experiment". It's a reality show for people who think 'the Science of Happiness' is a Big Brother housemate.

The idea behind the programme is simple (in the 'foolish' sense of the word). Can the scientific study of happiness (which basically involves stating the obvious in a perky voice) be used to cheer up an entire town? Judging by the opening episode, the answer's no, but we've got an entire series to get through before then, so let's not prejudge it.

The location chosen for this experiment was the Berkshire town of Slough (the clue was in the title), home of the fictional Wernham Hogg, and a place full of depressed people. Apparently. It looked quite nice to me, but then I did grow up in Basildon. Taking on the cheer-up challenge was a crack troop of so-called experts led by Dr Richard Stevens, a psychologist who likes to perform modern dance in forest clearings, and who acts like a cross between a stage school child and a hippy. Backing him up was Richard Reeves, a writer and economist, who owns his own megaphone and who headed straight out onto the streets of Slough to ask the locals what they thought his chances were of making the town happy. The residents spoke as one man. What I mean is, there was only one man willing to speak to him. And that man said "Nil".

But undeterred, Dr Stevens announced his intention to create "a chain reaction of happiness" by packing fifty averagely happy Slough residents onto "The Happiness Express" for "a Happiness Away-Day". Yes, that's right, he took them to a conference centre on a coach. Once there, his fellow Richard gave them a lecture on the economy of happy countries, and told them they're more miserable than a former communist state, before the good doctor took them outside for a "Happy Walk", and some ice-breaking exercises involving public nursery rhyme recitals. By which time I'd have been ready to shoot myself.

The culmination of the day was the launch of "The Happiness Manifesto", a ten-point plan outlining the secrets of a happy life. These include such ground-breaking ideas as counting your blessings and phoning a friend, as well as cutting your television viewing by half and growing a plant. Of course if you grow the right kind of plant you can certainly experience a high of some sort, and I was tempted to switch off the TV already, so I could see where they were coming from.

The following day Richard Reeves headed for Slough Trading Estate, where he failed to find any takers for the manifesto, while Dr Stevens took a group of volunteers to the local graveyard. He was undoubtedly the creepiest thing there, but the idea was to remind them all that they're still alive, and make them grateful that they haven't yet died a horrible and painful death in an underfunded nursing home. Slough resident Joanne responded by bursting into tears and talking about the time she tried to kill herself, prompting Dr Stevens to declare "It could mark a new phase in her life". Yes, a new phase of clinical depression.

Clearly reinforcements were needed, and they duly arrived in the form of Dr Brett Kahr, a psychotherapist, and Radio 2's answer to Frazier. Dr Kahr wasn't so much happy, as gay, and he soon set about playing show tunes on the piano, and trying to get everyone singing. Thank god Joanne wasn't there. She'd have topped herself by the end of the first chorus. Clearly Brett had confused happiness with excrutiating embarrassment.

But all of this effort was beginning to pay off. In the words of volunteer Heather, "I do try to give myself a treat. I bought some scollops this week". Oh yes, happiness levels were beginning to soar, and riding the crest of this wave of ecstacy was Richard Reeves, who headed straight for the town centre with a megaphone and offered free pot plants to anyone who was willing to listen to him talk about happiness for five minutes. He found only one taker - a woman whose son had recently died, and who told Richard "You're gonna start me crying in a minute". Not quite the result he was looking for, but hey, Dr Stevens had pushed a woman to the verge of suicide, so Rich was still ahead on points.

What we needed was more experts. So enter business consultants Jessica and Philippa, who failed to get a tune out of the boss of Tunes Engineering, and Andrew Mawson, a social entrepreneur (eh?), whose plan was to bring people together by organising a beach party. Slough doesn't actually have a beach of course, but that's why it's such a brilliant idea. Apparently.

Dr Stevens meanwhile was packing everyone back onto the bus and heading for Hampshire, his plan to cheer up Slough seeming to consist of getting everyone out of there. And it worked. Having escorted them to the middle of nowhere, volunteer Ruth sat by the edge of the lake talking about the positive difference that fresh air and clean living make. She was smoking a fag at the time of course, but you can't have everything.

Back in Slough, Richard Reeves had lowered his standards. He was now offering pot plants to anyone willing to listen to him for one minute. He had no takers whatsoever, but at least he didn't make anyone cry this time.

To be honest, he should have been relieved he wasn't in Hampshire, where Dr Stevens had taken his happy campers into the forest and was attempting to get them dancing in the pouring rain with the words "Make love with this tree!". I haven't seen anything so disturbing in the woods since The Blair Witch Project. Frankly I wish I'd taken the doctor's advice and turned off after half an hour.