Review: A life in the home of the young ones

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The Independent Culture
ALL THE students in The Living Soap, BBC 2's new fly-on-the-wall series, are graduates. Not of their various courses but of the Beeb's exhaustive selection process. Around 1,000 students applied, drawn by fantasies of instant fame or the lure of a year's free lodging in a plush suburban semi with a huge garden. In most of the student digs I've seen, a fly on the wall would have plenty of company - in fact it would have to jostle for a good view. But the BBC fly is going to be lonely here, amid the ruched curtains, en suite bathrooms and wall-to-wall carpeting.

The selection hasn't exactly resulted in a typical household either: six students neatly filling the ages between 18 and 23, four different universities, six different courses, one single mother and no apparent identity of interest, background or amity whatsoever. So this isn't exactly a scientific observation (the human equivalent of Badgerwatch) but a child's chemistry experiment (the random mixing of volatile chemicals in the hope that you'll get a big bang). Last night's introductory episode was unexplosive but there are some promising wisps of smoke drifting up already.

You can tell this because the programme-makers have supplied a smoke detector as well, a video-box that is notionally there to provide the students with a degree of editorial control but which, on the evidence of last night's programme, looks far more likely to provide the film- makers with useful off-stage backbiting. 'I think Loadsamoney was based on Dan,' confided Simon McKeown about Daniel Moore, a brash 19-year-old Essex boy. 'He's got interesting views about women.' 'I love the chase,' Dan said, cheerfully inking in his own caricature.

You should not, I think, hold your breath for passionate intellectual debate. Most of the talk last night centred on who was going to get which bedroom and the closest you came to a political issue was Vidya Manickavasagar's fundamentalist vegetarianism - 'I'm not washing those,' she announced after the celebratory first-night dinner, 'they've had chicken on them.' The others, she confessed dolefully to the video, weren't taking her beliefs at all seriously - 'It's become a standing joke now - with people waving their McDonald's in my face.' You have to hope she'll take her reviews with a stiffer lip.

'From what I've seen of the place, it's really happening,' said Carmen Pryce chirpily, signing off in the original version of Tomorrow's World in Moscow (BBC 1). Unfortunately, shortly afterwards it all really happened, tanks and all, and they had to substitute a more sombre valedictory. But though it's easy to make fun of Tomorrow's World - of its unbounded technological optimism and the cajoling jocularity of its presentation - this special edition gave a more intriguing picture of modern Russia than many grown-up current-affairs strands have managed.

The strongest item was about foetal tissue transplantation, a story that combined economic pressures, the moral legacy of Communism and scientific recklessness in equal measure. Russian scientists are currently exploring the use of foetal cells to cure diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease - even Down's Syndrome.

In the West moral doubts have put the brake on such research; in Russia the easy availability of aborted foetuses (abortion is still the most common form of contraception as it doesn't require hard currency) has accelerated the work. Now Russia has begun to export foetal tissue to California, a development that has huge moral implications.

Other items - on the recognised superiority of Russian computer programmers ('If you have not enough equipment you have to be creative'), on Russia's continuing space programme and on the entrepreneurial application of military technology to commercial enterprises, were a useful corrective to easy assumptions about technological backwardness. Tomorrow's World might not be very good at predicting the immediate future but it can tell you a lot about the present.