Inside Television: Pushy parents are taught a lesson in Child Genius
Ellen E Jones
Ellen is The Independent's TV critic. She writes a daily review of Last Night's TV and a weekly 'Inside TV' column for the i paper, as well as a column on general topics for the main paper most Wednesdays. Ellen is a former Hollywood correspondent and a contributing editor to Little White Lies, she's written on TV, film, lifestyle, travel and politics for publications including the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Total Film.
Friday 18 July 2014
The young prodigies of Child Genius (Channel 4, Sunday, 9pm) all have their reasons for taking part in Mensa’s annual competition. Home-schooled Jocelyn wants to measure herself against the peers she rarely meets; miniature Mozart Curtis hopes to be prime minister one day and Rubaiyat, an 11-year-old studying Maths at degree level just wants to make friends. For viewers the show’s appeal is even simpler: clever kids make compelling telly.
The child genius is a long-established media favourite who pops up as a guest on talent shows (Curtis has already been on Britain’s Got Talent twice) and local news reports, while a pushy parent hovers just out of shot. To adult audiences this precocious quality is at once adorable, comical and slightly unnerving, as captured by animated series Family Guy (BBC Three, Sunday, 10pm). One minute baby-mastermind Stewie is laughing uncontrollably at a game of peekaboo, the next he’s plotting the murder of his own mother.
Wunderkinds are a wonder to behold, but it seems many would prefer it if they stay at a beholding distance. In shows like Malcolm in The Middle and Doogie Howser, M.D, child geniuses are portrayed as lonely outcasts, who'd happily swap all their PHDs and trophies for someone to sit next to in the school cafeteria.
So while many of the parents on Child Genius keep their eyes on the prize, some seem mindful of this potential for social isolation. Rubaiyat’s dad had even bought him three books on the subject, which he dutifully studied. There followed a slightly cruel montage sequence in which we saw Rubaiyat attempting to engage bewildered children with gambits like “Did you know that 96 per cent of teenagers don’t like their faces or their bodies? It’s staggering, isn’t it.”
When does celebrating intelligence become an invitation to derision? That’s a call only the parents can make, but let the tale of Lauren Harries serve as warning. The 10-year-old James Harries, as she was then known, became famous in the late eighties, when she appeared on chat show Wogan as an antiques expert. It wasn’t so much Harries’ eye for a bargain which entertained; it was the cherubic blonde curls, the bow tie and that incredibly precocious manner. Sadly, after the media appearances dried up the Harries family fell on hard times. According to interviews Harries later gave, her financial worries were compounded by regular verbal and physical attacks from members of the public.
At least in Child Genius, the parents are required to share the limelight with their offspring. This poses interesting questions - is intelligence down to nature or nurture? Is it more important for children to be happy or successful? But most importantly it means the media’s critical glare is directed where it belongs - on the parents. Putting your daughter on the stage is one thing, Mrs Worthington, but did she really have to endure an algebra test to boot?
An honourable exit from Blick
Kudos to writer Hugo Blick who has demonstrated a principled courage that’s all too rare in television; he’s promised that the current series of his BBC Two drama The Honourable Woman will be the first and last: “We're not trying to wink and say 'Maybe there's another one'” Blick told a press conference. “It's got something profoundly engaging to say...because the conclusion it takes is final.”
In sitcom-land the two-series classics Fawlty Towers andThe Office are usually held up as models of admirable restraint. In drama a satisfying conclusion is even more important, yet it’s usual for shows to continue interminably, regardless of quality, until the audience dwindles to nothing. Great stories need a beginning, a middle and an end - so why do we settle for just the first two?
Channel’s 4‘s funniest, scariest and weirdest drama got into trouble this week for a plot that skated a little too close to historical fact. The plot references the assassination of real-life Tory MP, Airey Neave (played by Blackadder’s Tim McInnerny) much to the displeasure of his family. Controversy aside, this 1970s-set prequel episode is a stylish, John le Carré-esque opening to Utopia’s second series.
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