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REVIEW: Is there a father in the house?

It may have been part of Channel 4's "Black Christmas" season, but it was a wicked fairy who put Baby Fathers in the Yule schedule. At a time of year when we celebrate the birth of a child of doubtful paternity, here was a whole programme about ch ildrenin a similar position. If Joseph the carpenter had popped up in the procreative front line of Jamaica 2,000 years later, he would probably have suffered the indignity of a blood test to prove that he was indeed the father of the Son of God.

At a season when you can't move for movies, this was not necessarily the fare you'd seek out, but anyone who did was rewarded with something that sucked you in. Although half the programme could have done with subtitling, there is something powerfully seductive in the Jamaican accent even when pronouncing alien words like "monogamy". "Now 'e's an henemy of de family," one mother told the court, pricelessly, "because of 'is hattitude." Jamaicans obviously find the accent seductive, because s eduction seems to be a national sport second only to knocking the blocks off English cricketers. Hence the proliferation of paternity suits.

Another attraction was the chance to see justice in action in a context that couldn't be more different from the lapidary proceedings in The Trial, BBC 2's recent series about the Scottish courts. The family court here was not an imposing stone pile fronted by neo-classical columns, but a colourful shanty shack. Inside, the courtroom had just about enough room for the camera.

One baby father, who was there to prove that two of his girlfriend's three children were not his, wore sunglasses throughout. Perhaps because neither of them could afford lawyers, they were allowed to cross-examine each other, thus draining the hearing of whatever residual formality it may have had. The dialogue winged you straight back to improv workshops in the DramSoc.

In one hilarious vignette, a couple in dispute over child support were routinely, almost lazily, rowing, and the camera swung round to focus on their lawyers, standing bang next to them and erectly negotiating their next move.

But the conventionally rigid dividing line between the clients and representatives of the law, illustrated there, was frequently breached on both sides. The father of the three children was told that as he had helped bring them up, he had admitted de facto paternity. "That's a hard one for you to get out of, Mr . . . er . . . Bennett," said the female judge, hastily glancing down at her notes. In the other two cases, the lawyers acting for the baby fathers weren't exactly paragons of professional reserve: one was quite baldly in it for the money, while the other was openly gleeful when his client maliciously provoked a rival and got him locked up for the night.

It wouldn't stand up in court, but there's quite a good case to be made for laying the blame for this unholy social mess at England's door. Slaves were absolved of all responsibility for the children they sired, and this has seeped into the island's sexual psyche. At the end of each court session you still hear the invocation "God save the Queen", so they obviously haven't forgotten us.

Whoever's to blame, this was a tale from which it was difficult to extract cause for optimism or behaviour to admire. One man claimed that the only difference between Jamaicans and other males is their openness: honesty has never sounded less like a virtue. Anwar Batti's alert film was content to observe rather than enquire, and omitted to make any mention of the sufferings visited on the children. It's them you feel sorry for. When the child was taken round to the man demanding access whose paternity was proved by a blood test, she clung feebly to her mother's leg, the ball in a national sport in which no one wins.