Blood on the bathroom floor

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE not many frontiers left for documentary cameras to cross. They show us a baby in the womb, or being born, at least once a week, and the other day they showed someone dying. If you went for a test to see whether you had, say, testicular cancer, it would be no surprise to find a camera waiting for you. But the odd taboo remains. If you went into a changing booth to try on your first bra, or into the bathroom for your first shave, you'd feel pretty safe.

Not any more. The Lowdown (BBC1) followed Nick, 13, into the bathroom, and Rachel, 11, into the bra. This is a series for "older children", but you would only know it from the scheduling - tucked away at teatime on Tuesday. There was no commentary, no captions, none of the gimmicks producers tend to assume The Kids want: just two everyday stories, resonantly entwined.

There wasn't even any conflict. Nick, dark and skinny, didn't say no he wasn't going to shave off his little moustache, or why should he when Dad had one, or why did Dad have to keep calling it his bum-fluff. The nearest he got to defiance was wearing his football shirt with the collar up, like Eric Cantona.

Rachel, a chubby blonde who looked about eight, was not informed by her mum that she was too young to wear a bra. The sole battle was between Rachel and her unidentical twin, Helen, who had an older face but, according to Mum, a younger body. Interviewed together, they went into the oh-yes- you-do, oh-no-I-don't routine twice in a minute. "I'm 12 minutes older!" said Rachel. "Stop showing off!" said Helen. Was there, the interviewer wondered, anything good about being a twin? "No," said Rachel and Helen, as one.

For reasons that were understandable, we never discovered whether Rachel really needed a bra, or whether she just wanted to be one-up on Helen. Nick's moustache, on the other hand, was there for all to see. He studied it, with pride, in the mirror; we studied it too, in lurid zoom.

After a build-up of a kind usually reserved for live football on Sky, Nick finally made it to the basin, and Rachel to the bra department; and a sparkling miniature turned into a broader picture. The female rite of passage took place in public, in company (not just Mum, but Helen, pouring scorn while soaking up the experience), with much discussion and some laughter. The male one was solitary, apart from the film crew, and silent, apart from the drip of a tap. There was a moral there somewhere.

The obligatory unborn baby - a few of them, in fact - popped up on a Horizon film called "Foetal Attraction" (BBC2), a brainless title for an intelligent programme. Attraction didn't come into it. An Australian biologist, David Haig, advanced the theory that pregnancy is a battle between mother and child - for blood, food, life. To the unscientific mind, the argument boiled down to eggs in baskets. The father's genes, isolated, think the baby is their only chance, and grab all they can for it. The mother's, hoping for other babies, try and make sure she is alive to have them. The theory may account for the prevalence of miscarriage, which Dr Haig puts at "up to 50 per cent" of all pregnancies. I struggled to keep up, but I did enjoy the struggle.

Haig, red of beard and fixed of grin, made up in clarity what he lacked in charisma. His co-star was a London woman, Pippa Miller, who suffers from pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure in late pregnancy). It had made both her daughters premature. We saw the elder, a healthy, cuddly four- year-old, playing with her doll's house. The younger, born at 28 weeks, "had a lot of problems relating to her prematurity, and she died when she was six months old". Her mother said this without a trace of either self-pity or self-conscious bravery. Now she was pregnant again and within six weeks of full term. The one thing the film didn't tell us was what happened next, so I rang the BBC. A spokesman said the baby was due this week. While accounting for the fact that many pregnant women feel terrible, the Haig theory failed to explain why others feel terrific. But that may be a problem with theories, rather than with Haig.

To make sure not many people learnt all this, there was Goodnight Sweetheart (BBC1). It was the seventh episode of the second series of a perfectly good one-series sitcom idea - bloke takes wrong turning, finds himself in wartime London, as one does, and leads double life.

This week Nicholas Lyndhurst got into semi-professional singing as his girlfriend got into semi-professional dramatics . The episode threw up two questions, one for each big laugh. Why are actors at their worst when playing theatrical types, or stereotypes? And why do 12.7 million people, including me, watch this programme? The first question I can't answer. As for the second, Goodnight Sweetheart inspires affection. In the present comedy climate, that's enough.

Presence of the week was Nick Ingram, haunting the set like a ghost even before he died. Night after night, his face stared over newscasters' shoulders. It was an anonymous sort of face, notable only for the old-fashioned neatness of his hair. By Thursday night, he had lost even that. We didn't see him again, which was right, but we sensed him and we saw his lawyer's tears. A lawyer in tears: not something you see very often.

The word the lawyer, and Ingram's mother, kept using was "barbaric". It fitted, twice over. A man had been sentenced not just to death but to 12 years on a knife-edge. "Any man's death diminishes me," Donne wrote. But some more than others; and this one more than most.

Allison Pearson is unwell.