Entertainment TV & Radio

Sunday 19 November 2017

Last night’s TV: Operation Transformation

Diarmuid Doyle

If you watch too much telly for long enough, especially what has come to be known as reality tv, you can become very cynical very quickly about people.

Does everybody want to be famous? When people appear on a show that purports to help them change their lives, are they really doing it only because they want to be known as “that bloke off the telly”?

When the show is over, do they fall back into the old habits they were supposed to have changed, content to dine out forever on their fifteen minutes of fame?

It was a great credit to Operation Transformation: Six Months And Counting (RTE1) that it blew such cynicism out of the water in about three minutes.

Checking in four of the five people who took part last year in the original Op Trans – as its devotees call it – it immediately stood apart from the majority of such programmes, which never return to see how its former stars are doing back in the camera-free real world.

Its first port of call was Cork, where Emily Pigott had been the very definition of misery last year when she first appeared on the programme. An attractive 21-year-old , she was also, as she acknowledged herself , fat.

She spoke of how people would call her a whale or describe her as “f…..g massive”. She was 18st 4lbs, unable to jog more than 250 yards without almost collapsing, and was genuinely distressed at what her life had become. This was a woman in a whole lot of pain.

It was upsetting for her family, too. Emily’s sadness was clear for everyone to see, particularly her sister Linda who broke down in tears on camera talking about it.

It was the sight of Linda in such a state that really gave Emily the kick up the backside to change her life, she said last night.

And change it she did. She’s lost almost three stone, looks fantastic, is much happier and more confident, is running 40 km a week and hopes to be down to 12 stone by Christmas.

It was a very happy outcome to what had been a very sad story, and defenders of reality tv should use it as an example of how such programmes can have a real role to play if they take themselves, their participants and their audiences seriously.

Coming from a cynic such as myself, that’s high praise indeed.

Also uplifting, albeit in a peculiar sort of a way, was The Tenements, TV3’s very good social history of life in Dublin’s slums 100 years ago. Presented, in that beautiful, actorly voice of his, by Bryan Murray (who had his own experience of tenement life in Strumpet City all those years ago) it had the possibly unintended effect of making the viewer feel grateful for what he had.

No matter how much wealth we have lost over the last few years, no matter how poor we might feel currently, we are in clover compared to the people who experienced tenement life in 1911.

These things are all relative, of course, and as humans we’re more likely to compare ourselves to what we were five years ago than to some dead people we’ve never heard of, but The Tenements was a thought-provoking experience nevertheless.

In 1911, to take just one piece of information we learned last night, 835 people lived in just 15 houses on Henrietta Street. One hundred and four of these lived in one house, Number 7. Nearly every family on the street recorded the death of a child in the 1911 census. Some families reported more than one.

The Tenements is proper history, brought alive by a good script, Murray’s presentation and a clatter of engaging academics who know their subject. The decision to film a Dublin family as they try to live in Number 7 for a weekend is a bit too close to reality tv, and may not work as a result, but the Winstons are an engaging enough crew, so you never know

In any case, The Tenements works very nicely without them. If you missed it, it’s worth tuning in next week.

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