Television: A sugar-crash course in how we are poisoning ourselves

Review: Sugar Crash; Tracey Ullman’s Show; Fair City

Family sugar audit: Eva Orsmond  with Louise and Ollie Ryan

Family sugar audit: Eva Orsmond with Louise and Ollie Ryan

 

Next time you see a child with a fizzy drink, you might need to resist the urge to whip it out of their hands while sarkily suggesting to the parent that while they’re at it, why not give the child a smoke or a pint of beer. That’s how convincing Sugar Crash (RTÉ One, Monday) is. Presented by Eva Orsmond, the hour-long documentary makes a strong argument that Ireland’s sugar culture – we are the fourth highest consumers per capita of the stuff in the world – is seriously damaging our health.

As well as diabetes, which is well-known, sugar can cause chronic liver and heart disease and makes a huge contribution to the obesity epidemic. One expert puts it succinctly: “Sugar is the alcohol of the child.”

At the end of the second World War, Irish people were the slimmest in Europe; by 2030 we are on track to be the fattest. Which would be fine, if being seriously overweight didn’t bring with it a hospital-trolley-load of issues. The World Health Organisation recommends that for an adult, the daily intake of added sugar should be no more than six teaspoons, but the average Irish adult gets through 24 teaspoons. That’s because sugar is added to just about all the foods we buy. There are nine to 10 teaspoons of sugar in a single can of a fizzy drink, which you probably suspected, but this film shows how it’s also in food you mightn’t expect: this is savoury stuff such as soup and crisps, staples such as bread, and even Actimel, which has two and a half teaspoons in each dinky little bottle.

Director Rachel Moriarty opens the film not with the expected fat shot, but a far more powerful and unexpected one – of a four-year-old in an operating theatre, having her rotting baby teeth extracted. She wasn’t on a diet of candy floss – so no hopping up on the moral high ground. Her parents gave her a lot of fruit juices but, unbeknown to them, they tend to be full of added sugar. Every week 100 children in Ireland attend hospitals for their teeth – and throughout Sugar Crash this and countless other sugar-shaming facts come at us.

Sugar Crash takes its educational remit seriously. There are public service-type explanations of how sugar causes diseases, with graphics and illustrations. A family in Kilkenny open their cupboards for a sugar audit, which is an eye-opener. And because all food programmes have to include a “transformation journey”, the family change their buying habits, cut down on sugars and by the end of it improve their health.

Ultimately though, there is a dispiriting feeling that the consumer, in trying to fight the might of the sugar-pushing food industry, is on a hiding to nothing until there’s a sugar tax and food labelling that a normal human being might understand.

I suspect many people weren’t drawn to watch Sugar Crash for two reasons. One, a weary suspicion that sugar is just the next thing in a long line of items demonised by health warriors after fat, caffeine, alcohol, salt or really, whatever you fancy. And second, because of Orsmond’s well-known TV style from her Operation Transformation days, which can sound hectoring. My personal gripe is that every time she barks “Ireland” or “Irish people” I can’t help thinking (quite incorrectly I’m sure – it’s a reflex) she’s implying that if we only copped on and were more like the perfect Finns we wouldn’t be so rubbish. She’s good though: she gets the point across, with no sweetened pill here – we need to sort out our toxic relationship with sugar. In a week with any number of January-inspired change-your-diet TV programmes, this unsweetened message is the most powerful.

I must be suffering some sort of false-memory syndrome and I know it was a very long time ago – 30 years – but I remember Tracey Ullman’s sketch show on the BBC as being a laugh. That’s why I was so excited that after years of making comedy sketch shows in the US (The Tracey Ullman Show) she is back on this side of the Atlantic with a new sketch series, Tracey Ullman’s Show (BBC One, Monday). Ullman is still a terrific mimic: her Judy Dench, Angela Merkel and Maggie Smith are spot on. And she creates terrific characters: my favourite from the first episode (of six) is a British woman home after 30 years in a Thai prison for drug smuggling, who is clueless that Woolworths is gone or what a flat white or a croissant is.

You can imagine how in the writers’ room (Arthur Mathews is on the show; Ullman doesn’t write), the ideas sounded potentially funny: Dench as a shoplifter who gets away with it because she’s a national institution, or that off-duty Merkel is a vodka-swilling mess who leaves ranty messages on Nicola Sturgeon’s phone. But it all seems toothless, with a flat “so what” feeling about the sketches.

A song and dance number in a Welsh library, with Ullman tap-dancing her way out the door, seems deliberately retro, like something you might have seen wrapping up a sketch show 30 years ago, apart, that is, from the song lyrics and their mention of Kindles.

Perhaps it’s not the writing. It could be that sketch shows, and Little Britain was probably the last successful one, have had their day.

RTÉ’s viewer-magnet drama (no, not Rebellion) Fair City (RTÉ One, Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday) is going through a particularly strong phase. During the Christmas period, to cut through any goodwill, the writers came up with a terrific baddie, and soaps really fizz when there’s a strong central character stirring it up. It’s scheming, nasty Heather (Una Kavanagh). She seemed lovely when she came back, from where I never quite grasped, though then again I’m still puzzled as to how there’s a boutique hotel in Carrigstown.

Now she’s a proper monster, secretly poisoning her little daughter Ellie (Susie Power), plotting against her sister and trying to get her mitts on that nice doctor, who is a great man for the house visit. There’s more going on in Fair City’s Carrigstown than you’ll find in EastEnders’ Albert Square.

Ones to Watch: Hidden in full view

The Cayman Islands aren’t just a slice of heaven: they’re also a place where no one, including global corporations, appears to pay tax. In Britain’s Trillion Pound Paradise (BBC Two, Friday) Jacques Peretti examines the finance industry, which brought £1.5 trillion to their banks.

The title The Jihadis Next Door (Channel 4, Tuesday), about radicalisation in Britain, might err on the sensational, but Jamie Roberts’s film seems prescient. It has a 2014 interview with Abu Rumaysah, thought to be the British jihadi in the latest Isis execution video.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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