REVIEW / Take it from me, childbirth is better on TV

WHEN Coney Island was the greatest fairground in the world, one of its bigger draws was a building full of premature babies in incubators - the last resort of a doctor who couldn't get his ideas recognised by the medical establishment and needed to raise money for his work. Carlton's Special Babies (ITV) isn't very different really - a fairground stall which mixes a little bit of scientific education with a lot of gawping. It isn't, for obvious reasons, part of the barrage of family programmes currently being mounted by the BBC, but watching it on the same night as Living With the Enemy (BBC 1) and 40 Minutes (BBC 2), it was difficult not to see it as a grace note to the enterprise, a reminder that however messy life can become, it begins with pure emotions.

Having attended the real thing just over a week ago I can categorically say that childbirth is better on television. It rarely lasts for more than 20 minutes, and your heart doesn't stop every time the foetal heartbeat monitor falls off. It's a heresy to say it, I know, but the real thing is a horrible combination of tedium and terror, a bit like waiting in Gatwick departures for a strike-bound charter while an Iraqi torturer tries to extract from your wife a secret she doesn't know. If all goes well, the arrival of the baby anaesthetises all those feelings but for mothers like Jane, whose baby arrived prematurely, the anxiety continues. ET offered a hostile vision of what you saw next in Special Babies - a frail, uncomprehending creature surrounded by masses of hi-tech equipment and glaring light. Here it was benign, demonstrating just how far the hard-wired instinct to protect your young can go when allied to human ingenuity.

Cut to 16 years later. A mother is standing outside a bathroom with a video camera while the innocent-babe-that-was barricades herself inside, screaming obscenities at a volume that threatens to chip enamel. The instinct to protect has curdled a little by now. 'I get to the point where I either have to beat him to death or walk away,' one exasperated mother said while another had clearly fantasised aloud about the advantages of abortion during heated battles with her daughter. That mewling bundle, so sweetly perfumed and so soft of skin, is an unexploded bomb.

I must be getting on a bit because, though Living With The Enemy (BBC 1) tried to balance matters, using representatives from both warring generations to present the programme, I found it almost impossible not to side with the parents. On the evidence of this programme, teenagers are over-privileged, self-pitying, foul-mouthed, surly, sarcastic, spiteful and destructive. The video footage, raw and splenetic, was both gripping and depressing, but there were moments when the tenderness that radiated through Special Babies flickered again, dim through the smoke. At the end the resident psychologist (where does the BBC house them all?) forced the fiercest combatants to re-enact one of their rows, replacing the first verbal sparks with a hug, a moment that was both embarrassing and moving. 'It feels weird,' said the daughter as she peeled away from the embrace, and you realised that, however horrible they all were, someone had let them get that way.

Sometimes the damage is more wilful. Caraline, the anorexic subject of a grim 40 Minutes (BBC 2), described parental abuse that ranged from malicious teasing to oral rape. She spoke in a voice as spindly and shrunken as her body, a little girl's voice, as if she were reluctant to leave her childhood until it had been mended first. She has become horribly adept at the technology of vomiting, shown here in a cunning shadow-play that managed to be both decorous and explicit at the same time, but she also regurgitates undigested gobbets of popular psychology, leaving you to wonder whether therapy has actually helped at all or simply provided her with a better script for her drama of self-destruction. Jeremy Llewellyn-Jones's film was skilful in its restraint, properly recognising that the skull beneath the skin was the best picture available.