Saturday, 21 June 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 21st June 2014.

The Auction House:Tuesday, Channel 4

The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins:Tuesday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

I don't know about you, but there's nothing I enjoy more after a hard day's work than sitting back with a light-hearted documentary about harassed millionaires.

A three-part series, The Auction House is your standard observational fare; a wry glimpse into a world most of us have never visited – in this case, an antique-packed auction house catering to London's wealthy elite – where a host of “colourful” characters go about their business against an incessant backdrop of Danny Elfman-esque music.

Honestly, what is it with the whimsical music in these documentaries? It's like being beaten senseless by Johnny Depp dressed as a raggedy clown.

Full of super-rich people buying things they don't need, Lots Road auction house is owned by a balding tumult of rudeness known as Roger Ross. The staff were admirably frank in their open dislike of this brusque multimillionaire, who's obviously supposed to be The Auction House's breakout star. But unlike, say, Mr Mitchell from Educating Yorkshire, Roger isn't a magnetic presence. He's a charmless businessman, a chore to be around.

His customers were only slightly more compelling. Regular visitors Michael and Craig live in a house crammed with antiques and Old Master paintings. Resembling a pair of carelessly shaved Wookies, they plied their wares in the hope of buying a new set of teeth for dentally-challenged Michael.

Meanwhile, glamorous older lady Lily was looking to decorate her new home, a seven bedroom mansion set in its own park. At Lots Road she had her eye on a three-foot bronze vagina. No home should be without one. She didn't actually like it, she just wanted to own an expensive-looking piece of art. She eventually opted for a graffiti-covered table instead.

The idle whims of the foolishly rich aren't especially interesting, nor are the bickering internal politics of the auction house itself. It's a bum deal.

Very occasionally, a documentary comes along which tells a story so bizarre and arresting, it's a wonder it isn't more commonly known. The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins was one such film.

A tragic saga of 1960s idealism gone sour, it chronicled a NASA-funded experiment into communication with dolphins. Visionary scientist John Lilly believed if humans could find a common language with these intelligent creatures, then they could eventually communicate with extraterrestrials.

His young assistant, Margaret, went one step further: she hatched an ambitious plan to teach a dolphin to speak English. Based in a customised Caribbean house/laboratory, she lived around the clock with a dolphin named Peter. Their bond was so close, she thought nothing of helping him to relieve his sexual urges in order to focus on the lessons at hand. She described it as a precious, gentle process, from which she gained no gratification herself.

This troubling development was compounded by the revelation that Lilly injected the dolphins with LSD, in the hope of communing with them further. Understandably concerned, NASA eventually pulled the plug. When the dolphins were shipped back to America, they were housed in cramped, miserable, excrement-filled tanks.

Depressed and missing Margaret – was he in love with her? - Peter effectively committed suicide by deliberately neglecting to breathe. Margaret still talks of him with immense fondness.

Despite the sex, drugs and questionable morals, this wasn't a salacious film. Rather, it was a sad account of well-meaning humans infringing on the welfare of animals. It was quite extraordinary. 

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