No one said childbirth was going to be painless

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The Independent Culture
Labours of Eve (BBC2), a striking series of tales from the front line of fertility, has a rather off-putting sub-title: "A journey into the past with Nickey Springer". This suggests that Nickey Springer's company is at least as important as the past she happens to be exploring - there's a faint assumption of celebrity in the phrase, as if we're embarking on a cruise with some famous guest lecturer. As it happens, this is a sub- title to the sub-title, as each programme is also presented as one woman's personal narrative ("Joan's Story", "Helen's Story" etc.)

Anyway, for some reason it rubbed me up the wrong way - perhaps because it felt immodest for Nickey Springer to be squeezing her name on to the marquee like this - and I spent most of the first programme resenting the fact that she was on screen at all, wafting around in sensible dresses and conducting a brisk internal examination of the person into whose past we were journeying. Her manner is that of a progressive midwife, a firm sort of sisterhood, but some of her questions have the subtlety of a forceps delivery - "Do you recall what it was like in those very first moments?" she said to a woman who had come round from a traffic accident to find her two young sons had both been killed.

I wondered too about the programme's method, which is to retrace each individual story through the physical locations in which it took place. Sometimes the surroundings work to evoke memories or to produce a distinctive melancholy; last night, Helen, a woman whose fertility treatment resulted in premature quads, went back to the room in which her babies had been treated. It is now a storeroom, filled with unused equipment, and the contrast between her vivid memories and the dusty banality of the surroundings brought home the functional indifference of hospital architecture, its ready capacity to be wiped clean for another purpose. At other times, though, the effect can be decidedly bizarre; when Lori, a young woman who had acted as a surrogate mother for her sister, went back to the house in which she'd given birth, the current owner had to make herself scarce while some therapeutic weeping took place in her bedroom. The next scene showed the two women making themselves a cup of coffee in the kitchen, as if they'd decided to make themselves completely at home, and the device looked awkwardly bare.

But the irritation fades quickly, obscured by these arresting stories and, to be honest, by the ready welling of tears. Last night's film, the third in a series of six, was a particularly touching account of how fertility treatment will often deliver something quite unintended. Of Helen's first four babies only two are still alive, both damaged by their premature birth. She was given the opportunity to reduce the number of embryos but instinctively recoiled from the thought of such a calculated cull. Her fifth child, conceived and born in contravention of all medical probability, is a healthy girl, evidence of the cruel perversity of human biology. Like all three programmes so far, it gave a sharp human perspective to issues that are often debated as if they are simply ethical gymnastics. If men had to give birth, these programmes would have been made about 30 years ago.

Despite her courage, Helen has a difficult life (her husband has left her, and there is a repossession order on the house) but she's nowhere near as sad as the two impertinent busybodies shown in Public Eye (BBC2) earlier in the evening, patrolling the streets in order to inform on neighbours who'd broken the local conservation code. Their smug resentment of difference, their manifest desire to suppress any resistance to suburban uniformity, their twee worship of original detail made me feel it was a civic duty to have my house stone-clad at once.

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