Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IN THEORY, we're all sophisticated consumers of the media these days. We all know that TV cameras are never passive, neutral observers of the world: people play up in front of them, film-makers select and arrange - consciously or unconsciously - events and images to fit their views. We're wise to their tricks.

That's the theory. In practice, we are happy to go along with the film- makers when they kid us that they're telling the truth: God, you're getting all tangled up with that wool. Here, let me pull some of it over my own eyes.

But every now and then, something happens to jolt you out of acquiescence. There were two such moments in Maternity (BBC2) last night. Peter Gordon and Amanda Richardson's series is filmed around the obstetrics department of University College Hospital in London. (Declaration of interest: my children were born at UCH, the staff were lovely, and I have a rather fuzzy, rose-tinted view of the place.) The first programme followed three unexpectedly expecting mothers. Mel had been told she would never get pregnant without fertility treatment, and promptly got herself knocked up by a boy she met at a nightclub. Marva was on the point of starting fertility treatment when she got pregnant anyway, and then had Theo 10 weeks early. Angie had been having fertility treatment and then found she was carrying triplets.

Just before Angie was due to give birth by caesarean section, Gordon caught her husband, Andy, outside the hospital, talking about going to the pub afterwards. "What?" said a voice from behind the camera. "You're going to the pub?" "You, too," Andy insisted, benevolence and nerves abruptly pushing him out of the frame, breaking down the pretence that Gordon was a neutral observer. And then, on her way to the operating theatre, Angie blinked an anxious smile at the camera and announced: "Too nervous to talk to you, Peter."

But far from damaging the programme, the effect was surprisingly moving. The exchanges implied a warmth and trust between the film-makers and their subjects that offset any sense of intrusiveness. It helped to make sense of the moment a little later on when Mel, in the throes of labour, said that she would rather the baby's father didn't come into the room until the birth was over. The camera, meanwhile, whirred happily on.

The birth of Mel's son, Levi, made for a protracted and painful climax, the wincing and sobbing counterpointed by intercut film of Angie and Marva glowing over their offspring. At this point, Gordon and Richardson seemed to be pushing the emotional buttons harder than they had to, and the whole programme had a messy, over-constructed feel. But it also had an admirable urge to show people at their best, to refrain from passing judgement. And if you can't do that in a maternity ward, where can you do it?

Friends: In Their Own Words (C4) was advertised as being a "100 per cent unofficial" guide to the hit sitcom and its apparently anodyne stars; this didn't stop it being assiduously reverential. After Wednesday night's puff for The Phantom Menace, it's starting to look like British TV is turning into one big trailer-park.