Television: Fashion gets fat friendly while Harley Street is keeping up appearances

Review: ‘Plus Sized Wars’, ‘Inside Harley Street’, ‘Home of the Year’

More Instagram followers than Tiger Woods: Tess Holliday, the size-24 model who features in Plus Sized Wars

More Instagram followers than Tiger Woods: Tess Holliday, the size-24 model who features in Plus Sized Wars

 

Dress it up how you like: being fat, with all its health risks, is never going to be fabulous. But if the three high-street chains in this week’s Cutting Edge documentary have their way it will be fashion friendly.

Plus Sized Wars (Channel 4, Tuesday) is a misnomer: there is no war. The three retailers featured – Yours, Evans and Taking Shape – reckon there’s plenty in this plus-size market to go around, as 60 per cent of British women are now technically obese, and they are no longer satisfied with polyester tent tops and elasticised drip-dry slacks. They want Topshop, only bigger.

As there is no friction between the retailers the film goes elsewhere for its story, finding it in the rise of young fashion bloggers. Their influence highlights the fact that mainstream fashion lags behind the curve. At the Milk model agency, its boss, Anna Shillinglaw, has plus-size models on her books, women who are – gasp – between size 14 and size 16. They have to be “curvy”, though, tall and with flat stomachs. Shillinglaw’s “plus” criteria highlights the fact that the catwalk is out of step with women on the street.

Yours then brings over Tess Holliday, a 5ft 5in size-24 American model, to flog its latest underwear and open its new store. She’s a star, it gets media attention, and there’s a queue of young fans.

Shillinglaw, who had never heard of Holliday, notes her 500,000 Instagram followers – “more than Tiger Woods”, she murmurs midepiphany – and quickly signs her for her agency. Those size-14 to -16 wannabe plus-size models she describes earlier as having “potench” – fashion lingo is hilarious – are now so last year.

Pluz Sized Wars skirts around several issues, as the subject gets too big for the hour-long film. It lightly questions whether social media’s “body positive” messages are promoting unhealthy levels of fatness (or just rebalancing the negative messages everywhere else), whether the increasing number of shops catering for larger women (rarely men) are glamorising obesity, and why, when the plus-size model Georgina loses two stone, some of her social-media followers criticise her for betraying them.

The programme is a touch superficial, upbeat and glossy, but it is still a good insight into a growing market.

Over on the BBC the must-watch documentary series Inside Harley Street (BBC Two, Monday) is also considering looks. When the award-winning film-maker Vanessa Engle goes behind the scenes she doesn’t become so embedded that she forgets to do her job; her tone here is humorous and wry – she’s very present, asking questions off camera – as she gets doctors and patients to open up.

Despite the hushed luxury, the international clientele and the smell of money in the air, she never lets viewers forget that although the doctors have bought into the Harley Street brand – the rents are staggering – they are, in terms of training and skills, not so different from those in the NHS (from where many have come). The differences are that the waiting rooms are fancier, that it’s a personal service and that the patients end up with huge bills.

This second part in the series, subtitled Make Me Beautiful, concentrates on cosmetic surgery – which seems timely, as Harley Street’s traditional roster of cardiologists and specialists are slowly being replaced by Botox injectors and nip-and-tuck surgeons.

Engles never tries to shame the patients – the default angle of most cosmetic-surgery films. Instead she asks more than one doctor if, after a hard and lucrative shift sucking the fat out of thighs or plugging hair follicles into a bald head, they feel proud of their day’s work. Their answers usually imply that the financial rewards compensate for any embarrassment.

Mark Hughes, a cosmetic dentist from Dublin with a large Harley Street practice that looks like a boutique hotel, is competing with 400 other dentists in the area, but with an average spend of between £10,000 and £20,000 per customer he’s happy.

We see one of his young patients, a preteen, getting braces. Just as Hughes tightens the final wire the child’s mother presents the girl with an Hermès watch for being so brave. I can’t see that catching on outside Harley Street.

I know the clue is in the hardly opaque title, but I can’t get my head around Home of the Year (RTÉ One, Thursday) – and this is from someone who loves design and interiors series so much that she could probably watch an entire programme about paint drying.

Home of the Year feeds a nosiness to see inside other people’s houses, but it doesn’t feel like a real competition. Yes, the judges – the interior designer Hugh Wallace, the product designer Helen James and the architect Declan O’Donnell – give points out of 10 for each house, but it’s unclear what they’re actually judging, and it feels like window dressing.

Anyway, we’re clearly in apples-and-oranges territory: an architecturally impressive passive house in west Co Cork versus a pleasant terraced house in Dublin. I can’t see what’s in it for the owners unless they are architects or designers looking for work. Ootherwise Home of the Year takes house pride to an incomprehensible level.

The judges make for good TV, though. They play along nicely for a while, and then a tastefully low-grade digging match breaks out between the forceful Wallace, who has an impressive collection of natty scarves, and an equally opinionated James. The mild-mannered O’Donnell looks on like a teenager witnessing his parents fighting in public, torn between mortification and boredom.

“Sheepskin?” shrieks Wallace when James suggests that a rather plain sofa in a Ballsbridge mews could do with some “texture”. (That word crops up every week.) “I can see sheepskin here,” says James, sticking to her guns. “So can I,” says the quietly spoken O’Donnell. But Mum and Dad don’t notice, and they continue snarking. “You’ve had your say, darling,” Wallace tells James in a house in Phibsborough, winning the passive-aggressive award for use of the word “darling”. “Helloooo,” he says. “Please let other people in. Other people have opinions as well.”

Whatever about the houses, where everything is staged down to the last detail, or indeed the idea for the programme, with its veneer of competitiveness barely disguising its true mission of satisfying net-curtain nosiness, there’s something engagingly unselfconscious about all that bickering.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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