Fry on the Wall – adhocumentary

Reality tv content abounds so we’ve almost become immune to the intrusive ‘social experiment’ mode that documentary/ game show hybrids have adopted. But this one –  Eye Spy (with Stephen Fry)  – has sunk low whilst still claiming the higher moral ground. From The Guardian, a review that articulates some of the discomfort viewers experience when invited to share the host’s smug ‘god-like’ perspective. Be warned – this review may contain spoilers.

Stephen Fry’s Eye Spy is bad. It’s very, very bad

It’s the Venn diagram meeting point between That’s Britain! and Fool Britannia and yet 2,934,857 times worse than that sounds.

Sarah Dempster, The Guardian, Sat 22 June, 2013.

The Guardian

I want to restore your faith in human nature,” coos Stephen Fry in new hidden-camera “moral conundrum” series Eye Spy (Thursday, 10pm, Channel 4). Sod the hell-in-a-handcart chunterings of the tabloids – we’re bloody decent sorts, really. In fact, gurgles Fry in tones of molten corduroy, “Some of us may even be heroes!” Eye Spy naturally aims to prove this thesis via a series of wholly arbitrary CCTV stunts, bewilderingly obtuse gotchas and “psychological questions”.

So it’s off to some restaurants in London and Manchester to prove the cuddly-wuddliness of something or other with a pretend racist waiter called Barry. Will diners intervene when Barry abuses a mixed-race couple? “Will they step up to the plate?” thunders Fry as the legend STEP UP TO THE PLATE appears against a wobbly graphic of a shredded union flag. The answer is conclusive: some of them will (“Heroes”). And some of them won’t (“Not heroes”). Take that, meta-ethical moral relativists!

Roving reporter and “man of the people” Rick Edwards is aghast. “Barry?” he splutters into his headset, surveying the (in)action in a Manchester diner from the Eye Spy control room. “Nobody’s batting an eyelid. You’re going to have to ramp it up. Start saying some stuff that makes you feel a little bit sick when you say it.” Barry nods solemnly and launches into a Defcon 1 Emergency Discrimination Monologue that includes the phrases “little chocolate babies” and “next thing you know they’re rioting”.

Whump. And yet still the diners barely look up from their burgers. “Why?” ululates Edwards, shaking his head like an aggrieved outreach worker, but, when confronted, nobody seems to know. “Dunno,” shrugs one diner. “Mumble something something stiff upper lip, umph,” sniffs another, as Edwards nods and looks crestfallen in his leather blouson.

With no time to waste, the show moves on to a bit where members of the public are filmed either stealing or not stealing £30,000 from a phone box (“These ladies decided just to scarper!”). Then there’s a bit where shoppers grumble about tax while peering into a fisheye lens. This turns out to be the perfect method of charting relative levels of stupidity among people who look a bit like Pete Townshend. Finally, there’s a test that proves 83% of a group of four-year-olds can resist the temptation to eat a marshmallow. “You see, Britain? We CAN control our impulses!” cheers Fry, appallingly.

How bad is Eye Spy? How bad is a piece of string? It’s the Venn diagram meeting point between That’s Britain! and Fool Britannia and yet 2,934,857 times worse than that sounds. For all its hammer-blow puff about “groundbreaking experiments” and “statistics”, it’s a tombola of tenuousness. None of it proves anything. Stunningly condescending, tiny-scale experiments result in whole cities being either applauded or cast into the desert of moral crapitude (“Pat yourself on the back, Brighton!”).

Absolutely none of this takes into account the fact that even the most morally upright of citizens can have an off day, or may be too scared to intervene in certain situations for fear of being abused/humiliated/bludgeoned to chutney with a medieval mace. In Eye Spy’s 100-tog tabloid world you’re either a hero deserving of Fry’s blessing or a naughty sausage who should go to bed immediately without supper. “Can I find a hero to help a schoolboy in a wheelchair,” wonders Fry, “even if he’s obnoxious?” Dunno mate. Can you?

Next week: Would you confront a Black And White Minstrel – even if you were wearing the same brand of anti-perspirant? Would you help a Beefeater re-grout his grandmother’s bathroom – even if she called Rick Edwards a bellend? Would you do this? Could you do that? Should you do the other? I don’t know about you, but 83% of this viewer has decided to STEP UP TO THE PLATE and send herself personally to hell in a bloody handcart.

another review – from The Scotsman (23 June 2013) is similarly damning of the program:

“Like an elaborate Beadle prank with a civic duty twist, its an entirely pointless experiment in which the notion that some people are prone to helpful intervention, while others aren’t, is held up as astonishing insight. Insufferably condescending and pleased with itself – Fry, who narrates like a cosily omniscient God, presumptuously refers to the viewer as “you” and “we” throughout – it’s a heavily padded, repetitious jumble of shallow positivity and censorious tutting.”



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