television review

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Remember the film Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice? If so, it is probably only for the poster, featuring the quartet in interchangeable haircuts, sitting up in bed, smoking. The poster told you all you needed to know: this was a very Seventies, John Updike sort of saga, centring on all kinds of partner swapping and the personal problems that come with the territory.

Network First (ITV) last night, brought us the story of John and Chris and Joe and Sue. This being the Nineties, however, the moral ambiguities of this foursome were slightly more complex: what were being swapped here were not bodily fluids, but wombs.

In short John and Chris (that's short for Christine, it wasn't that modern) couldn't have children. Then one day John's brother, Joe, suggested that his wife, Sue, should stand in as a surrogate mother. "Rent-a-Womb," he called it, "Kids R Us". For two years Chris (a ringer for Sharon from Birds of a Feather) didn't want to know, but in the end she relented. Not wishing to alert the medical orthodoxy, the foursome did some DIY, involving a thermometer, a test tube and a bit of handiwork. Thus was a baby conceived. And if we were pedantic about this, the baby was the creation of John and his sister-in-law Sue; the only thing Chris gave was her consent, a fact which would, you felt, create all sorts of problems later on.

John and Chris and Joe and Sue didn't see it like that. For them it was all a question of personal pronouns. "He's never once referred to it as his baby," said Chris. "It's always ours." "We see it as if we're letting out our womb for nine months," said Joe, which, with its over-use of the possessive, was marginally overstating his involvement.

But then John and Chris and Joe and Sue had not thought too much about the consequences of their actions, otherwise why on earth would they invite Yorkshire Television into their menage a quatre, soon to be cinq? If they were that desperate to get on telly, a quick video sent to You've Been Framed would have been a less traumatic way of doing it, than sharing their tangled moral dilemma for over a year with a film crew.

John in particular did not emerge well, blubbing more on camera than might be considered dignified for a man who supports Chelsea. He blubbed when the baby was born, when he saw the real mother, when he saw the adopted mother, when he saw the surrogate's husband. He was still at it seven months after the baby was born, breaking down at the christening when he read out a little poem he had written (though this may have been a critical response to his own efforts).

The film crew, once it was invited in, made the most of its opportunity, nicely setting up the problems. The moment it caught Sue (who had performed an unlikely double whammy by being, at the same time, a real and a surrogate mother) unable to look at the baby she had borne as he was christened, suggested that, in the words of the Allied Dunbar ad, "there may be trouble ahead".

In the meantime, John could be seen controlling his tear ducts long enough to croon an Elvis lullaby to his son. At this point he looked very like the comedy dad in How to be a Little S*d (BBC1), a new and, allegedly, humorous child's-eye view of parenting. "It may seem cruel but parents have to learn who is boss," intoned Rik Mayall voicing the baby, the s*d in question. And television commissioning editors have to learn to distinguish between the witty and the commonplace. How to be a Little S*d shows they have failed the first lesson. Difficult though it might seem, those irritating Safeway ads with Martin Clunes voicing the baby are infinitely funnier than this.