TELEVISION / The kids are not all right

IT WAS Orwell who said that part of the reason for the ugliness of adults in a child's eyes is that the child is usually looking upwards and 'few faces are at their best seen from below'. The implication being that when a child is grown to full height and can finally look the horrid adults in the eye, it will see nothing so bad after all. Will see, in fact, the reflection of its own eminently corruptible self. Few of us manage to keep the ardent righteousness of youth alight in the big world - the stale air simply won't feed the flame; besides, it's too exhausting. We like to call this condition maturity. How smart, then, of Channel 4 to commission Look Who's Talking, a week of programmes about children by children: in theory, there's nothing like a rash of idealism to get the grown-ups itching their apathy. In practice, there was only so much pleasure to be had from this chorus of juvenile zeal. Just off the note you could hear a rising nasal whine like a bluebottle with adenoids: 'S'not fair, Sir. Please Suuur, tell them. S'not fair.'

S'not Fair would have been a very fair title for Child's Eye, a documentary in which three L-plated avenging angels travelled round the country primly ticking off every official they interviewed as if the poor schmucks had just been caught behind the bike shed with a kilo of crack. Teenagers Pia, David and Kirsty were allegedly collecting the opinions of Britain's youngsters and putting them together in a 'manifesto for change' to be presented to the Prime Minister. They needn't have bothered leaving the studio: the outcome was as preordained as a debate at a party conference. Children should have more rights in divorce cases, more say in their education; nuclear power was nasty, as was unemployment and being cruel to travellers. Only dolphins escaped their wholesome embrace. Here was a new species for the bestiary of complaint: the child as smug boar, trampling through complex arguments and spearing nay-sayers on its twinkling little tusks.

A gentle Scottish divorce expert tried to explain to our Goody Six- Shoes why it might be distressing for small children to be consulted about which parent they wanted to live with. 'They're just little people,' huffed Kirsty, stating the central, flawed principle of Look Who's Talking. Happily, the trio's campaign bus was a double-decker, allowing them effortlessly to take the high ground and look down on the crummy excuse for a society which adults had created. You waited and waited for the penny to drop. For them to realise that it was only a matter of time before their generation got a chance to screw it up all by themselves.

The naivety of children, their want of perspective, gave the season its intellectual weakness and its emotional strength. In Children's Express, a 12-year-old American reporter asked Dan Quayle how come if she had to disclose her grades to get a job in a hamburger joint he didn't have to disclose his to become vice president. The queasy smile on Dan's face was the same one given by the BNFL man when the sister of a girl who had died of leukaemia asked him in Child's Eye about leaks at Sellafield. 'Well, the word leak is a very difficult, er, thing to interpret.' You saw that kids' failure to comprehend long words sometimes gets them to the truth quicker: they leak, the man from BNFL 'discharges in accordance with the authorisation which the Government gives us'.

The theme week is a wrongly maligned form: setting up a number of ideas, it allows them to exist in fruitful - often farcical - tension. Here, Look Who's Working, a Liverpool lad's report on child 'slave labour' in Britain seemed a tad overblown (paper boys in low-pay shock]). But when you came to compare it with the plight of Bangkok's infant whores in Raised Voices, it suddenly looked like obscene first- world self-centredness - more picky rights for us while others endure wrong without end. Elsewhere, there was a distressing bias towards the earnest and the solemn which didn't accord with one viewer's experience of the pubescent human. If, as the season implied, all 14-year-olds are instinctively fervent little Lib Dems, how is is that when they come of age four years later so many of them vote Tory? In this ruthlessly right-on agenda there was no room for the kids who think Disabled Access is a warning in a computer game. It was a relief to hang out with Alan, the entirely recognisable hero of Jack Rosenthal's sublime P'Tang Yang Kipperbang (1982), who lies in bed promising God he won't masturbate (honest) if only He will let him kiss a girl and bat for England.

Look Who's Talking set out to assert 'the importance of the youth voice' but, as it inadvertently revealed, out of the mouth of babes and sucklings is likely to come not fully-formed wisdom but undigested mush. That doesn't mean we needn't take children seriously, just not as seriously as they sometimes take themselves. Significantly, the most memorable work of this children's week was made by adults who could shape inchoate experience into art. The documentary Mother Russia's Children revealed the heart-numbing consequences of adults' unnatural abdication of responsibility for their young, as did The Boys of St Vincent, a true-life drama set in a Canadian Catholic orphanage which teachers had turned into pederast purgatory. It didn't flinch from showing how fast innocence might catch contagion. Last, but most, was Louis Malle's film Au Revoir les Enfants which wipes a circle in the fogged glass of memory to reveal the infinite terrors of the small world. I hate to say this, kids, but after all that shrill empowerment it felt wonderfully grown-up.

I watched the first episode of Nice Day at the Office twice because I was worried I had missed the joke. No such anxieties touched Paul Shearer and Richard Turner; they too were missing the joke - indeed an entire sense of humour - but these days that need not be a barrier to writing a sitcom for BBC1. Radio Times informs us that the script is 'razor sharp' and one can only conclude that the previewer in question has a very long beard.

Once again, we have run into our old friend the Star Vehicle. In the US, which produces perfectly tuned laughter machines like The Larry Sanders Show (BBC2) and Frasier (C4), it would not have been let out of the garage. Poor Tim Spall is at the controls of Nice Day, which is like getting Damon Hill to drive a Lada. He plays Phil, who has just hit his 10th anniversary in the data processing department. You could say that Phil's story was that of a gargantuan Rabelaisian spirit thrashing around in restrictive white-collar hell, but then you would be talking about a piece with an Idea. Spall does what he can to urge this crate uphill - he slobbers at the mouth, he wobbles his prodigious jowls, he laughs bitter pantomime laughs (Argh hargh hah hah]), he prances about like a peroxide Oscar Wilde, but the role has no gears for this most subtle comic actor to change into. His supporting cast - Anna Massey, John Sessions, David Haig - could prop up the Parthenon should the need arise, but what can you do with exchanges like the one in which Massey's prim fiftysomething is rebuked by Phil: 'Shur up, you dried-up old prune'? That line would have been unfunny in a less enlightened age; in ours it is an unforgivable insult.

Nice Day is set in the kind of office which sports those notices the humourless put up to show they can take a joke: You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps] Donna Franceschild's Takin' Over the Asylum (BBC2) is set in a place where mental instability is compulsory and the wit genuine. Having dispensed with the obligatory politically correct defence - 'One in four of us will suffer a mental health problem' - it got stuck into a wistful but gutsy tale about a DJ who goes to play records for the fools on the hill and finds surprising solace in minds which dance to a different drummer. That sounds pat and worthy, but Ken Stott's beautifully nuanced central performance won't let it be.

There may be nothing new under the sun, but that still isn't an excuse for Inside Story (BBC1) bringing us Holiday Rep. If you had a can of lager for every film made on that great British export, the Tourist Tosser, you'd be as pissed and boring as the 'guests' that Louise, the Olympic girl from Blackburn, had to deal with here. Is there no justice? First Crete has to endure recreational Nazi shooting parties, now fans of Carlisle United: horny hands that rock the cradle of civilisation and puke all over the baby. Louise was a smashing lass, cycling from lout to lout like a sturdy district nurse. But 45 minutes of prime documentary time should not be squandered on a subject that has already had its bottom scraped. Particularly when that bottom has a purple thong in its cleft.