Last Night's Television - Born To Be Different: Turning Nine, Channel 4;
Mad Men, BBC4
Lives less ordinary
Wednesday 06 May 2009
As far as I'm aware Baby P, the Haringey child who was effectively tortured to death, didn't have what we conventionally describe as birth defects. In a different sense, of course, he had one fatal one. He was born into a sick parody of parenthood that ultimately killed him, after enduring physical and mental torments. Watching
Born to Be Different: Turning Nine, Channel 4's account of what it is like to grow up disabled, it occurred that although all the children here carry burdens that run-of-the-mill children do not, they have at least been spared Baby P's birth defect. They have parents who are fiercely loving and protective, to such a degree that there were moments when you were almost tempted to argue they had been born privileged.
It's a painful kind of love, of course, likely to drive a sharp spike back into the person who feels it. "You can never guarantee you're doing the right thing," said Zoe's mother fretfully, a universal parental anxiety but one that must bear with peculiar intensity on a parent who has to decide whether to submit her daughter to painful corrective surgery. Zoe was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that has left her unable to bend her arms, and, now she's reached her ninth year, her resistance to further surgery is beginning to melt. The trouble is that it's an unpredictable procedure and, children being what they are, Zoe's keenness to have the operation evaporates as she enters pre-op, leaving her mother to sit out the long hours of the operation with the memory of Zoe's frightened sobs in her ears.
For other parents, the dilemma still has to be faced. Hamish, who has achondroplasia, is now old enough to have absorbed the fact of his difference. "Now he doesn't ask about being a tall or short person," his father explained, "He asks about being a tall or short dwarf." The difference between the two possibly coming down to a drawn-out operation that will lengthen Hamish's legs, by repeatedly breaking them and cranking apart the gap. There was a melancholy sequence in which Hamish went to the airport to meet Ben, who'd already had this operation, and you could see his face fall as a very small man walked into the arrivals hall. He'd been hoping to see someone as tall as his dad, I think, and he couldn't conceal his disappointment.
I'm not sure that a film like this can entirely do justice to the hardships these parents endure. It's not likely, for example, to catch them snappy or exasperated or cross, and then enduring the guilt that follows. It can't easily acknowledge the admissible thoughts that must occasionally cross their minds, the if-onlys that are the flipside to the stoical, just-get-on-with-it attitude that is their default mode. But it does movingly portray the uncertainties of this life. Nathan's parents, initially determined to have him educated in mainstream schools despite his Down's syndrome, have now changed their mind, persuaded that his own sense of his distinction from other children might be making things harder for him. "You can never guarantee you're doing the right thing," in other words, only that you're doing it for the best motives. The film ended before we could find out whether Zoe will finally be able to bend her arm at the elbow or whether Emily – who was born with spina bifida, which left her doubly incontinent – will achieve her poignantly modest dream of being able to "wear knickers like my friends". But since the film-makers, like the parents, are in it for the long haul, we won't have to wait too long before we do.
The last episode of Mad Men ended with the vague intimation that Don might be about to do a Reggie Perrin, but this week he was back in the office, just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis and the season finale. Don and Betty have been conducting their own Cold War for quite a while now, but the threat of imminent nuclear extinction seems to have persuaded them towards détente, with the episode closing on a hopeful hand clasp. The jitteriness of mood had also persuaded Pete to declare his love to Peggy, who repaid this confession by revealing that she'd had his baby and given it away. Unless I was mistaken, Pete was later glimpsed in his office pensively cradling a hunting rifle – just in case Mr Khrushchev didn't do it for him – but we're going to have to wait for season three to hear whether a shot rings out.
Just in case any one over-reacted after watching last week's Desperately Hungry Housewives – about bulimia and anorexia in older women – we were back to default mode this week with two programmes, Claire Richards: My Big Fat Wedding and Fix My Fat Head, which obsessed over weight loss. No wonder, frankly, that some women's minds eventually turn to self-starvation.
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