Inside Television: Pushy parents are taught a lesson in Child Genius


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The Independent Culture

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?


Utopia, 4oD

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.

Royal Marines Commando School, 4oD

Fly-on-the-wall docs about “never-before-seen” corners of British life are two-a-penny, but Channel 4’s new eight-parter, Royal Marines Commando School is something special. This episode we meet the excellently named Corporal ‘Froggy’ Chauffour, who is gearing up to give his new recruits the full Full Metal Jacket treatment.

Lost Lost Family, ITV Player

Here’s your daily cry, as they say on the internet, or, in fact, all your daily cries for a month wrapped up in one hour of factual entertainment. Long Lost Family, the show that reunites estranged family members, must be responsible for at least 25 per cent of all tissues sold in Britain. Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell (himself adopted as a baby) are our impressively compassionate hosts.

Veep, Sky Go

The bad news is Armando Iannucci says he’s not planning any more episodes of The Thick of It. The good news is his stateside equivallent Veep, just keeps getting better and better. In this first episode of the new series Selina isn’t about to let a little thing like Mike’s wedding get in the way of her presidential ambitions.