ENTERTAINMENT
08/11/2011 18:32 GMT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 GMT

'My Transsexual Summer' Review: Educational Documentary Or Gratuitous Reality Show?

Channel 4's latest docu-reality show tells the story of seven Brits who have decided to change gender. The programme follows them as they 'transition' and sees the group come together every weekend at a country retreat to share their experiences.

It has a sensationalist title, just like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which was a huge hit for Channel 4, but will it help bring awareness of this minority's everyday struggle against social prejudices? Or is it just shock TV to pull in viewers?

Channel 4 doesn't do reality shows in the conventional sense, not since their Big Brother baby began to wane. Instead, they've had more success with programming that pushes boundaries and opens doors into worlds the public doesn't usually get to see. Gypsy Wedding did just that and the public lapped it up, although a proportion used it to ridicule the gypsy community's unique traditions.

My fear was that the same would happen with My Transsexual Summer. Lord knows, Twitter can become an ugly place when controversial programmes are on. And you have to ask yourself - what type of people put themselves forward for documentaries where the most intimate parts of their lives will be discussed on air and, in this case, their most intimate body parts are also shown?

Well, after watching episode one of this series I can answer my own question - in this show, at least, it's brave people that have put themselves forward. If not a little desperate. For those trapped in their own incomparable situations with no one to talk to about what they are going through, a transexual retreat is an obvious attraction.

One of the seven trans-people appearing in the series is Drew, aged 22. She's desperate to live what she calls a 'normal life', but being transgendered is stopping her achieving that. Every time she goes out, or even shops in her small hometown of Wakefield, she is stared at and frequently abused by strangers in the street.

As we first meet her she addresses the first thought that pops into your head: why are you doing this? She tells of her fear that "by doing this it would make it a lot worse", but she's obviously weighed up her options, and if she's brave enough to share everything with the nation then who are we to judge?

At the beginning there were worrying moments where it seemed like it could be another Big-Brother-quirky-characters-all-living-under-one-roof type of show, as, one after another, people arrived at the house and greeted each other excitedly. But, as the show went on it really came into its own and became gripping viewing.

From "beard envy", to their fears of "looking like a bad tranny", their concerns were laid bare.

Trans-people who live as women are often mocked for the amount of make-up they wear, but in this show we see the stories behind the slap. Applying her full face before anyone sees her, Drew explains: "The more you have on, the more you feel like a woman." She tells us how she never had anyone to teach her how to wear it, instead she looked at photos of Jodie Marsh and modelled herself on people she thought were deemed attractive.

We also see the daily routines the seven trans-people go through, including watching the boys inject hormones into each other and watching the public's reaction as they go on their first night out in Soho as a group. Plus we look on as 52-year-old Karen, formerly a policeman who served on the front line of the miners' strike and the Tottenham riots, undergoes life-changing surgery, called a vaginoplasty, in her last step to becoming a woman.

My Transsexual Summer is inspiring viewing, it challenges perceptions and gives insight into a maligned community. It's sensitively handled and focuses on the strength and support the participants find in each other, but it's not for the squeamish (sex change surgery is featured in the first episode).

The series may have a sensationalist title, but if that's what (producers think) it takes to get people to watch an eye-opening documentary, where's the harm in it?