review

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The Independent Culture
Barnardo's Children (BBC1) is a real three-box weepie; by the time the credits roll you have to fight your way out of a snow-drift of wadded Kleenex in order to go and make a restoring cup of tea. It starts with the home movies - little fragments of film lit up by the unsophisticated happiness of small children. There was a peculiarly moving example in last night's programme - three little girls in identical dressing gowns, leaning over their dolly's cots to give them a goodnight kiss. Their own doll-like cuteness and the poignancy of this little pantomime of motherhood - giving what they couldn't receive - was infinitely touching. Touched, of course, was exactly what you were meant to be - the scene had been choreographed, part of the organisation's calculated use of publicity. Dr Barnardo himself knew the value of "before" pictures, images of childhood misery which helped lever donations out of the public: this was the "after" part of the story, an image of well-organised contentment designed to reassure the charitable that their money had been well spent.

Which in most cases it had, even if the high-mindedness of the pre-war years can easily look cruel to modern sensibilities. Last night's film, even more affecting than the first, was about the continuing pain caused by Barnardo's former policy of secrecy, the belief that the less children knew about their background the happier they would be. This clearly wasn't the case with John Williams, now trying to establish the details of his family history with the help of Barnardo's Aftercare department. His mother, he discovered, had written to the charity for 18 years, never forgetting her son and frequently asking to visit him. He was never told of her interest or existence and he trembled as he learnt it now, as that dammed-up expression of love finally broke over his head.

He had been the result of a love affair between a married white woman and a Nigerian student - impossible to pass off as part of the family and so sent into care. John was given the letter in which she described her distress at parting from him: "my husband also has become very fond of him," she added, a line as tender as a bruise. It ached with other possibilities, of love winning out over social nicety. In real life, happy endings are harder to come by: John met up with his half-brother but his mother couldn't face it. Apart from the mildly annoying sob of the cello music, nagging you to feel what you are already feeling, Michael Davies's film negotiated such material with admirable tact.

Hypotheticals (BBC2) notionally allows social workers, doctors, lawyers and the police to discuss their decision making candidly, without betraying confidences. It would help a bit if the fictional cases were a little less cartoon-like (the baby at risk last night was known as Wayne and was born in Grimsville) but the participants soon shake off their first- night nerves and become surprisingly engrossed in the business of covering their professional backs. I'm not sure about the purity of the results obtained by this method (a good documentary-maker would get closer to the truth) but there are some revelations - not least the singular terror of moral judgement that seems to afflict many social workers.

Ken, the father in the fictional case, was clearly a vicious little berk, shamelessly exploiting the goodwill of others. It might, who knows, have been good for him to be told this without equivocation, but the bracing experiment wasn't suggested by any of those involved. This guilt about social disapproval looks like a reaction to the arrogant paternalism of the past but the obsession with confidentiality (often a means of evading a difficult decision) looks more like a continuation of the old secrecy by other means. If Barnardo's Children showed anything it showed that hiding from the facts is never a good idea in the long run.

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