Social media is currently infested with people professing to be “empaths” who are suffering cruelly (with no apparent discount for it being remotely and, uh, imaginatively) through the crisis in Ukraine. It is sickening to watch, not least because it clothes narcissism in one of humanity’s finer qualities. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and stand there, looking out alertly and intelligently from that point of view, marks us out from the beasts as surely as language.
The ability to empathise on camera without appearing inauthentic and being emetic is a refinement of such a gift, and one without which many human interest programmes become unwatchable. That Your Body Uncovered With Kate Garraway (BBC Two) succeeds at all is down to her genuine interest in people and ability to say the right thing with the right degree of sentiment. The whole thing is heightened, of course, by the knowledge of what she is going through at home, caring for her husband Derek Draper. He has been incapacitated – possibly long-term – by the after-effects of Covid and, as she put it in a recent interview, she has been learning to love him in a different way.
The base fact is that Your Body Uncovered is, once the novelty has worn off, quite boring. The conceit is that people with (often chronic) medical conditions get to see the problem from the inside out, courtesy of numerous scans amalgamated to produce a 3D image that viewers can see at home. The patient can walk round inside the affected body part wearing virtual reality goggles while a doctor talks us through the distended viscera we can see.
Isn’t technology amazing? Yes, it is. But not for long. Particularly not when the cutting edge of artificial and human intelligence is used to show us the inside of … a frozen shoulder. Such is the complaint of Trudi, a lovely 50-year-old mum of three and grandmother of one. Anyone acquainted with the condition will feel for her, especially as she is clearly the hub of her family and increasingly constricted physically and dependent for help on those she would prefer to be helping.
Still, the inward appearance of a stranger’s frozen shoulder is only slightly more interesting than the outward appearance of a stranger’s frozen shoulder. Which is to say – not very. Watching the graphic skeleton overlaid with a layer of inflamed, red tissue was more like listening to someone tell you about their dreams than providing any groundbreaking insight. Ditto watching the treatment – steroid injections, which are very painful in reality, but visually anaesthetising.
Hilda’s fibroids are far more rewarding, and therein lies the essential ickiness of all such programmes. They rely on extremity and slip unstoppably further towards exploitation as they do so. Sweet, gentle Hilda, 40, a fashion influencer, has an abdomen that is grossly distended by innumerable uterine fibroids. She is in terrible pain, bleeding virtually unmanageably for three out of four weeks and effectively insomniac because her bladder is so squashed that she must wee several times a night. As her best friend puts it, “She basically can’t live.” The obvious questions – her history, how things got to this point, what doctors have said up to now – go largely unasked because it’s not that sort of show. There is a suggestion late on that she has been reluctant to agree to surgery, but no explanation of why. Perhaps she was only offered a full hysterectomy instead of the removal of the growth and shied away from the implications, as she says she desperately wants children. But we don’t know.
At a time when reports of how neglected and underfunded matters concerning women’s health are, how frequently doctors dismiss their reported pain, and even how much higher mortality rates are for women treated by male surgeons have made headlines, the superficiality of this programme becomes unignorable. And the pat conclusion – Hilda will be operated on by the lovely doctor/presenter and we will see her able to fit into the clothes she prefers instead of the baggy dresses of necessity … oh, and without a hysterectomy so, uh, yay!
Garraway just about keeps the whole thing together with her warmth and wit, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling by the end that however clever the technology and able the presenter, this approach just won’t do any more.