A teeming body of work

A corpse makes a good lunch

Blowfly maggot: a useful market to help us understand what happens to a body

Blowfly maggot: a useful marker to help us understand what happens to a body


On Radio 4 this week, crime novelist Val McDirmid has read extracts from her recent book, Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime.

Forensic entomology is the use of insect biology in the solution of a crime.

It’s grimly fascinating.

Val describes the first recorded use of the technique 800 years ago, to identify a killer who stabbed a man to death in a Chinese village.  The coroner asked all the villagers to gather together with their sickles.  A fly landed on the sickle of the local money-lender. Then another, and another.  And he confessed.  Despite his effort to clean the blade, the flies had been attracted by microscopic traces of blood.

Modern forensic scientists understand the way a body changes when it dies.  The rigor mortis and loss of temperature are valuable clues for the first day or two, but when the body is solidly cold, you need the skills of an entomologist, who use their knowledge of the life-cycles of insects within the corpse to understand when death took place.  Blow flies are important – they only arrive when an organism dies and with certain adjustments based on the temperature, the maggots and pupae provide reliable markers (they grow more quickly if it’s warm).

La petite mort

The French idiom for orgasm, ‘the little death’, usefully captures the pleasurable release when a programme is broadcast but also the sense of something been spent.

When the audience research team works we’re not really researching the programme.  And you can see why, like bodies, TV programmes are complex systems in which we can describe a few elements – the genre, cast, and main elements are akin to the species, age and anatomical framework.  But it can’t easily capture its essence.

It’s the organisms around it that concern us – who they are, when they came and went and so on. What matters is the programme’s influence on others, not itself, per se.

And a TV programme is a living organism surrounded by life.  When alive it is animated, making things happen around it.  It will sustain parasites, some of which live at its expense, and some which co-operate to mutual benefit (such as advertising, without which it might not exist).

The cyamus boopis, a parasitic whale louse

The cyamus boopis, a parasitic whale louse

Observing the way Twitter has attached itself to TV, at times for mutual promotion, and at others to divert revenue away, I am put in mind of the cyamus boopis. This whale louse clings to the genital region of humpback whales.  The analogy isn’t perfect (TV isn’t harpooned by the Japanese), but the relative size between the whale and the louse is a reasonable approximation of the commercial impact of TV and its parasitic host.

Living organisms interact with their peers and duplicate themselves through breeding. The processes of the food chain and evolution means that they can improve the stock of other organisms by the process of killing the lower quality or less adapted quarry.

Just like TV programmes.

Live = alive

Organisms are at their best when they are alive, are they not.

When we consider the enduring preference of viewers to watch programmes when are consumed when broadcast, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s the sense of liveness that they value. They may not be performed live, but the simultaneous release makes them live (short i) because of their broad impact.  We’re all enjoying a simultaneous petite mort.

After they have been released, they don’t disappear.  They attract interest still, and the blow flies and others move in.  Let not our squeamishness about blow flies make us unkind about an impressive creature which can smell a dead animal a mile away, and entrusts its precious eggs to the decaying meat.  And by feeding and hosting flies, dead creatures re-enter the food chain in complex ways (or more direct.  Perhaps you’ve heard of that old lady who swallowed a fly).


A blow fly (not actual size)

A blow fly (not actual size)

And since we can’t always research the actual organism, we get clues about what happened when it lived by examining the processes by the blow flies.  We read reviews, we gauge the level of social comment, we can look at the audience that turns up afterwards.

And like a dead animal that sustains a minor ecosystem living in and around its body, for some TV programmes, it’s the afterlife that really sustains it.