REVIEW / Good intentions and added incentives

BABY MONTHLY (BBC 2) is a canny piece of programming which manages to combine extreme economy of means with a fair guarantee of audience obsession. Several prospective parents have been handed video cameras and told to record the progress of their new babies over their first year. A casual remark from one of the participants hinted at the true appeal of the series: 'We always intended to keep a video diary,' she confessed, 'but this will give us an added incentive.'

Without the incentive, I can assure her, the intention soon falls by the wayside. After months of bad sleep and serial bottom- wiping, the prospect of getting out the video camera yet again competes very poorly with the prospect of slumping on to the sofa with a drink big enough to make Mrs Bottomley frown. The rationale for laziness is too powerful - he'll do it again tomorrow, you think, but before you know it he's 15 and in a position to refuse to be filmed lying on his tummy in the bath. So, courtesy of the fact that most babies look the same anyway, Baby Monthly supplies you with a ready-made set of video memories. I hope they've all been instructed to film in close-up so grandparents won't be distracted by odd pieces of furniture they haven't seen before.

A large part of the appeal of Baby Monthly is that, whether what we see on screen is dazzling or dull, it all has the charm of truth, underwritten by the grainy incompetence of the video footage. 'Bambino Mio', last night's Screen One (BBC 1), ended with the caption 'A true story', a phrase which, in my notes, immediately follows the complaint that the narrative was as 'mechanically constructed for ups and downs' as a roller coaster. I won't withdraw entirely. It's true that real life can take the form of bad art sometimes but then it may be the duty of good art to try and conceal the fact. In any case I doubt that the reversals of fortune in the original case quite so conveniently obeyed the first rule of melodrama - that extremes of joy must be followed by extremes of misery. In Colin Welland's account of a woman's attempt to adopt a South American baby you could pretty much guarantee that if everybody in the foreground was smiling with relief some thunder-faced bureaucrat would sidle into position in mid-shot, ready to rain on the parade.

The drama was summed up by one of its more unconvincing characterisations - a psychiatrist who has the unusual professional habit of interrupting his patients to end their sentences for them. Alice (Julie Walters) has to visit him as part of the bureaucratic steeple-chase involved in adopting a foreign child and he's not the only figure who seems over-eager to spell out the issues. Even the wife of an unscrupulous Venezuelan baby-trader takes time out to prod members of the audience who might not have got the point ('Sometimes I think what a helluva way to make a living - taking kids from their mothers,' she says during a brief access of conscience). If the social worker involved had entered a scene with a placard reading 'Moral issue number three: do we want children for their good or our own?' you wouldn't have been very surprised.

That the thing worked at all was down to Julie Walters, who got me by the throat on several occasions with her portrayal of a woman starving for motherhood and snappy with those standing between her and the table. But Welland's script rarely matched her level of emotional truth, flirting with conflict in several scenes but shying away from the irresolvable nature of the issues involved. Even though Alice leaves most of the officials with bad friction burns, several of them turn up for the hearing in which she finally wins out, streaming out of court behind her in a scene that looked more like a Coca Cola commercial than serious drama.

Lenny Henry's exploration of African- American humour for the South Bank Show (ITV) was missing some obvious interviewees but made up for it with a funny, melancholy film which managed to wear its politics well.

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