TELEVISION / Mummies, Daddies, Auntie and Esther

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THIS is the United Nations Year of the Family. So last week was family week on the BBC, with studio discussions, phone-ins and live broadcasts which snooped on ordinary families in their homes. On The Family Show (BBC1), Esther Rantzen launched her Age Watch investigation into how older Britons feel about their lives. To contribute to the survey, a person need only be 55 years old. Esther herself is a fit and active 53. So why was she smirking so apologetically as she talked about people entering 'the maturity of their prime'? We are none of us getting any younger. Esther should be proud to be pushing home the implications of this simple but disturbing fact.

Some very peculiar families were on show in The Making of Them, a fascinating 40 Minutes about preparatory boarding schools (BBC2). Harry's mother sends her son to a school which does not allow him to phone home. That's fine, she says, because Harry is bound to be OK; meanwhile, she is poking away at her finger with a table knife. 'You can't have a proper conversation with an eight-year-old, it's so stilted and one-sided,' somebody's father chips in. 'I remember one boy who hated school so much he had to be sedated; seems to be a perfectly normal chap now.' 'Goodness,' breathed the interviewer, unable to believe his luck at finding subjects who were so unselfconsciously self-revealing.

Nick Duffell, of a group called Boarding School Survivors, exquisitely recreated the tangle of thoughts that pass through the new boy's mind. 'Mummy and Daddy say they love me; and yet they've sent me away. So if I don't like it, then there must be something wrong with me. Maybe that's why they sent me away.' But despite Duffell's efforts, I found my mind wandering unsympathetically off, to a future Britain in which sweet blond Harry and his friends are ready to take up their positions as the rulers of the rest of us. As we draw our tiny state pensions, I bet we'll be wishing we had paid more attention to Age Watch.

In several decades' time, according to Florence and Robin, the first film in ITV's new Network First documentary strand, the world will also be getting used to the force of another group of kids, most of whom are about six now. Sympathetic commentators report that the children of San Francisco's current 'gayby boom', born to lesbian couples with the help of artificial insemination, will mostly grow up to be heterosexual. When you compared the comfortable, relaxed style of the women in this programme with the brittle, furtive 40 Minutes mummies, you had to wonder why this was such a wonderful thing.

It wasn't that Network First didn't make a reasonable effort to present the downside of the lesbian-moms issue. We watched family-values types take mothers to court because they practised oral sex, still an offence in many states. We heard grave-looking men warn of how messed up a child from a non-traditional family is bound to grow up to be. Back in the world of the lesbian mommies, the sun always seemed to be shining; Florence and Robin themselves were well organised and optimistic. And you couldn't help but notice that San Francisco's Pacific Primary School, at which one child in six comes from a two-mom family, was full of the cheerful chaos that the corridors of power at young Harry's school distinctly lacked.

Last Sunday Tim Firth was being praised on these pages for his new stage play, The End of the Food Chain. Now there's his new comedy-drama series, All Quiet on the Preston Front (BBC1). The story is about the social lives of fairly young, fairly poor people, and the action looks as if it's happening in real pubs, real leisure centres, real back patios. The actors have wonderfully mobile, unactorly faces: Hodge (Colin Buchanan), the Romeo of the piece, is handsome, but not so sure of it that you don't feel sorry for him as he, in his words, proceeds to mess up the rice pudding of his life.

It's surprisingly easy to accept that lads as easy-going as Hodge and his earnest sidekick Eric (Paul Haigh) should want to spend weekends yomping around with the Territorial Army. Pub quizzes, football, Greenpeace, the TA: what's the difference when a man is looking for something to do with his spare time? This gentle observation is backed up by the incidental music, played on a deliberately rudimentary folky-rocky guitar. This, you realise, is the sound Hodge and Eric would be making in their bedrooms if they were a bit younger, and if they hadn't stumbled on the idea of playing with proper guns instead. The show continues for five Tuesdays and is well worth missing your badminton practice for.

You know that annoying prelude you always get at the beginning of murder stories, setting the scene before the hero you have switched over for actually comes on? The one in 99-1 (ITV) was a classic. A businessman is showing a group of clients around a new office. 'We always felt that the traditional office had a somewhat, um . . . deadening effect. We have created a space in which workers can feel genuinely ah . . . alive.' I bet you can't guess what's lurking behind the door.

The character of Inspector Michael Raynor does not exactly stretch Leslie Grantham's Dirty Den persona. He's emotionally autistic. He lives apart from his wife. He's far too at home in criminal environments for his own good. And that's about it.

Rather a lot of The All New Alexei Sayle Show (BBC2) had you thinking about things you had seen other comics do before. The happy-chappy title sequence, with its split-screen gags and its chirpy tune, was very like the title sequence older readers will remember from the shows of Harry Worth. The angry-young-man monologues to camera were delivered with much the same air-clutching hand movements that make young women swoon when done by Rob Newman. It's not that Sayle hasn't developed such routines off his own bat, and for his own reasons. He just seems to have lost some of the intellectual energy that used to make him uniquely sardonic and fierce.

However, there was one lovely sketch, about being the new boy in an office full of supposedly welcoming workmates. The scene is a cosy pub; Alexei is the new bug, and his boss has prodded him to tell a funny joke. 'So this man goes up to the horse,' he stammers, as colleagues carry on talking among themselves. 'Sorry, John, what was that again?' says the boss, in as supportive a fashion as he can be bothered to muster. Poor John eventually bursts into tears, then proceeds to die of stress. 'What happened?' a kindly colleague asks. 'Oh, the horse can talk or something,' the boss replies as he finishes his drink.

Allison Pearson returns next week.