Fans of trash TV will doubtless be intrigued to find out whether Big Body Squad, the new documentary series on Channel 5 that reports from “the frontline of overweight Britain”, is worth watching. Given that the programme sounds like little more than the latest in a never-ending line of cheaply made TV documentaries about obesity, does it stand out enough to warrant your attention?
Well, not really. Though to give the programme its due, it does at least attempt to examine the issue from a new angle. While the majority of docs about obesity tell the story of a particular patient, follow them through surgery and then leave us with the knowledge of their struggle ahead, the focus of Big Body Squad is ostensibly on those whose job it is to treat and transport the infirm and overweight.
As such, the titular “squad” doesn’t actually exist, the programme’s title being a collective term for firefighters, ambulance crews, engineers, hospital staff and carers, all of whom are said to be facing new challenges in their work owing to Britain’s rapidly expanding waistline.
What sort of challenges, you ask. Well, according to the documentary, these days a great many people are becoming too large and heavy to use, say, standard size ambulances or MRI scanners, and so solutions have to be found when these individuals fall ill. Found, and in some cases, invented.
To that end, we’re introduced to a manufacturer of supersized, reinforced furniture whose profits have soared 400 per cent in the last five years, and who says that his clientele are “the morbidly obese and the super-morbidly obese…sometimes the obese, but more often the morbid and super-morbidly obese.” It’s perhaps illustrative of the scale of Britain’s burgeoning obesity problem that this man can instinctively classify people in these terms on sight alone.
And there are indeed many, many very large people glimpsed in this documentary. Around five years ago, when I actively sought out ob(esity)-docs like this in the listings, I only remember seeing people this big in US-made programmes. Perhaps Big Body Squad’s makers have identified a worrying trend in British life and can shed some light on the causes of this new epidemic?
Alas, it isn’t to be. Like Channel 4’s Coppers, Big Body Squad scrutinises individuals and specific situations instead of taking a broad look at the problem on a national scale, but unlike Coppers, BBS flits from ambulance crew to carer to firefighter so speedily that the viewer isn’t given much information about the work, lives or thoughts of these people beyond what we see happening on the screen at any one time.
And considering that the majority of BBS’s runtime is devoted to scenes of obese people being moved from a hospital to their home, or from their home to a hospital, there’s only so much to learn. Indeed, clocking in as it does at a full hour and consisting largely of people being squeezed through doorframes and onto beds, BBS starts to sag like the seat of a supersized wheelchair around the halfway point.
Indeed, the whole programme feels like something of a missed opportunity. For instance, the sight of ten men attempting to shift one fellow off a stretcher and back into bed looks comic at first but quickly becomes disturbing. Why, I found myself wondering, have these people got so big? Analysis isn’t attempted, although one 50+ stone man blames his condition on nihilism brought about by his mother’s death, an interesting diversion that isn’t pursued.
But the programme’s focus is, after all, on the people pushing the stretcher rather than the individual on it, and it’s heartening to see so many courteous, polite people dealing with what are, to say the least, undignified situations, in a professional manner.
Ultimately, BBS will only really appeal to the curious who want to look at very large people. It’s too inconclusive a documentary to be the definitive chronicle of Britain’s obesity crisis, and it attempts to cover too much ground ever to offer real insight. Like a half-pound hamburger, there’s too much stodge and too little nutrition for this to be considered the best thing on the menu.
Those of you with the temperament of a Victorian sideshow attendee might enjoy this, but Big Body Squad will place as much pressure on the stamina of most viewers as a 40-stone man does on a deckchair.