British television is going down the pan. Literally, in the case of Know Your Sh!t (Channel 4), a likable new pop-science odyssey exploring the hot-right-now subject of gut health and what we can all do to improve our gut microbiomes. Don’t be put off by the title, even though it has been softened by a P!nk-style quirk of punctuation. This show makes a point about how needlessly squeamish Britons can be about this subject matter, and what that could mean for people who might otherwise be helped to better health by confronting their poo.
This will not put you off your dinner, they promise, and it’s true that there is no Gillian McKeith-style use of a lollipop stick to prod around in whatever the subject has left in a tub. It’s also true that there is a lot of poo and fart chat, in the required level of detail for a semi-medical programme, so it does rather depend on when you had your dinner, and what it was. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend watching Know Your Sh!t with a tray on your knee.
Identical twins Lisa and Alana MacFarlane host this cheerful combo of Embarrassing Bodies and You Are What You Eat, arriving in a powder-pink VW Beetle, and announcing that they are setting up a clinic for excrement-related issues, called Poo HQ. This is also mostly pink, and I am troubled to find that the colour scheme is almost identical to my living room. At Poo HQ, they meet people with gut health problems and queries, who do interviews from a snazzy bathroom while sitting on the loo, fully clothed, before a team of experts, including the nutritionist Sophie Medlin and gastroenterologist Dr Rabia Topan.
For the most part, it’s genuinely fascinating stuff. Prof Tim Spector, now well-known for his books on eating and nutrition as well as the Zoe health study, explains why gut health is such an exciting field. The science is only just starting to catch up with what scientists have long suspected about how much the health of our gut is connected to the rest of our body and mind. Later in the series, Lisa and Alana will get tested by him to see what they can learn about themselves and their own microbiomes.
But this first episode is about regular folk trying to work out why they don’t poo very often (model Emerald), why they poo too often (the fabulous 69-year-old Jan), and why milk can mess you up (gym instructor Marcus). While I sometimes wonder if TV shows promising medical attention are a depressing sign of a system that is failing those who need it, it is undeniably cheering to see people addressing problems they have ignored for years. Jan’s story, in particular, is wonderful. After suffering from incontinence and limiting her life in all sorts of ways, she ends the episode able to wear white trousers. Her life story is moving and her get-up-and-go is just lovely. I didn’t expect to find such warmth in a programme about poo, but here we are.
The show is self-aware enough to know that you can’t say things such as: “What brings you to Poo HQ today?” with an entirely straight face, and parts come across like outtakes from an early 00s Radiohead album. “We are more microbe than we are human,” apparently; it sounds like a lyric that would fit right in on side A of Fecal Microbiota Transplantation. Actually, FMT is the curious field of giving one person’s so-called perfect poo – that is, from someone known as a “super-pooper” whose quality gut microbiome is in the top 1% of the population – to someone else, freeze-dried, in a capsule, winningly referred to here as a “crapsule”. Again, it may not put you off your dinner, but I wouldn’t want to watch that part while having chocolate ice-cream.
There is a lot of terminology to digest here, from “transit time”, which can be measured by eating a dyed muffin and seeing how long it takes for your poo to turn blue, to “optimal toileting position”, which explains why so many people struggle to do what they need to do. I am a sucker for breezy medical telly, which takes a conversational approach and has a personable light touch. Next week, we’re promised a man who used to find his farts funny, but solemnly declares that he doesn’t think they’re funny any more. I can’t wait to see what Poo HQ makes of him.