TELEVISION / To Alan and Auntie, a bouncing baby: Thomas Sutcliffe puts his stamp of approval on BBC2's Birthnight - a schedule of first class deliveries

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The Independent Culture
The title of Controller has always been a slightly odd one - bringing to mind the sort of dystopian oligarchies so common in Dr Who, or (for those raised on Thomas The Tank Engine) a dull but aimiable functionary sorting out the squabbles of the marshalling yard. Commissioner-in-Chief would actually be more accurate had it not already been appropriated by a different British institution, but there are occasions when the existing title seems just right, when a network suggests that the messily collaborative business of television - subject to the vagaries of individual talents - is being directed by a clear sense of purpose.

Alan Yentob couldn't really have timed it better; in the morning the papers announced his appointment as Controller of BBC 1 and in the evening his current channel (over which he will retain a 'watching brief') showed itself at its most vigorous, a five-hour curriculum vitae for imaginative use of a public resource. What was instructive about Birthnight (BBC 2) wasn't so much its perfection - some sections had suffered from lack of space - but the coherence and quality of its overall presentation. Even the little personal anecdotes which linked the whole evening had clearly been thought through, with the mothers first seen in tight close up as they recalled their experiences of labour, then posed in formal portrait with their children - a move from solipsism to the social role as the centre of a family. Another channel might have identified the famous participants for this section - here they took their place in common with the others - a little nod to the fact that the travails of childbirth are indifferent to fame or bank-balance.

The problem with all theme evenings - that if you're not interested in the theme you're not interested in the evening - was probably amplified here by the gulf that separates parents (prospective or otherwise) from the rest of the population, a gulf far wider than that between believers and atheists. The paradoxes of labour - that it is both unique and commonplace, that it compresses extremes of pain and joy - make old soldiers of those who have experienced it, boring non-combatants with their campaign stories. Veterans' fascination, though, is inexhaustible.

Actually, a straw poll among some New Men of my acquaintance suggests that even they began feeling a little Older at about 11.00pm - when Match of the Day started over on BBC 1. As a result they missed the best of It's Alright Darling, I'm Here, which intercut Hollywood representations of new fatherhood with reflections from the real thing. This opened with infuriating tricksiness, chopping conversations into tiny lengths to create a mosaic of paternal panic but, to her credit, Pat Holland knew when to sit still and listen. The final story, about a father who had waited 14 years for his first daughter only to have her die in his arms, was uninterrupted and among the most powerful moments in an evening that recognised throughout that the simple stuff of people's lives provide the best special effects.

Much earlier, in A Labour of Love, older women had supplied a little perspective to the current infatuation with labour with their accounts of its brutally matter-of-fact nature before the war. Pain relief consisted of a tightly rolled tea-towel between the teeth and noise was kept to a minimum; 'You didn't make a row', recalled one old lady, 'because the kids were in the next room and your husband was downstairs and you didn't want to frighten them to death.' If you were cosily reflecting that women were no longer required to behave with such mute heroism you were soon put right by Jessica Mitford, in her report on The American Way of Birth.

This was simply too short (squeezed by the frankly make-weight piece on animal births that followed) but even so it conveyed an intriguing picture of a society in which birth is managed for the convenience of doctors and their insurance companies - the Caesarean rate rises in the late afternoon, when doctors start to worry about getting away for the day, and lay midwives assisting at home births face the prospect of armed medical police bursting through their doors. Mitford's finest moment came when she peered anxiously out to sea at a couple who had 'invited' dolphins to their underwater birth and said mischievously: 'You don't suppose a shark got it - what a pity after all they've been through.'

Yentob has reason to be proud of Birthnight but he will have to grit his teeth while A Year In Provence runs through its 12 parts on BBC 1. An idiotic concoction of travelogue shots, condescending portraits of comical French artisans and hammed-up linguistic clumsiness, it has a slack, time- serving feel, as if the success of the thing in other forms meant they didn't really have to bother.

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