Last Night's Television - Having a Baby to Save My Child, BBC1; Skippy: Australia's First Superstar, BBC4
The heart of the matter
Wednesday 17 February 2010
"You've essentially been given a ticking clock," Tom said of his son, David. He meant the kind with a bomb attached, not the kind that you can wind up again, because David has been diagnosed with Fanconi anaemia, a bone-marrow disease that affect few adults. While we're all ticking clocks, David has a lot less on the dial than most of us. His best hope of long-term survival is a bone-marrow transplant and his best hope of that working well is to get it from a tissue-matched sibling. Unfortunately, there's no such person in David's family, and the effort to alter that fact was what
Having a Baby to Save My Child was about.
They weren't the only couple pinning their hopes on a "saviour sibling", the unfortunately religiose term for IVF conceptions selected in the knowledge that they might contribute organs or bone marrow to an existing child. The film also followed the case of David and Samantha, who had already been given a cruel tutorial in the progress of the disease. Their daughter, Jessica, had been diagnosed late and died after a bone-marrow transplant from her father (the only option available to them). Now, they were hoping to produce a child who might save their young son, Alex, who also has the disease.
There are complex ethical issues here – the kind of thing to tie theologians and philosophers in knots. But those intractable tangles tend to yield almost instantly to the razor-edge of parental love for an existing child. Tom and Alison, for example, are practising Catholics as well a qualified doctors, but the formal dogmas of the church didn't stand a chance against their yearning desire to redirect their son's fate. "I kind of feel you should really go on what you feel is right," said Alison, a doctrinal line that would probably not find much favour in the Vatican but that made a real kind of sense when viewed from her perspective. That didn't stop you asking yourself questions about the unborn child, though. Alex's sister, Ashleigh, who had already seen one sister die, thought that a "saviour sibling" would be privileged to contribute to the rescue of a brother or sister. "You'd feel so amazing, wouldn't you?" she said. You would, perhaps, but wouldn't you wonder too whether your own existence was a sort of side effect?
Emma Loach's film was not one of those cheering tales of adversity endured and then conquered. The only upbeat it could offer was the agreement, after several appeals, that the NHS would stake David and Samantha to one throw of the dice with IVF, which they could not otherwise afford. Sadly, you'd already seen the results of Tom and Alison's four previous gambles – with £28,000 of their own money – at the same table. All four attempts had failed and they were now embarking on their fifth cycle of treatment, with a non-family donor as the only possible backup. There will, no doubt, be people who watched with a clear conviction that what the couple were doing was morally wrong. One hopes they offer up some thanks for the fact that they can make their judgements from the sidelines.
Skippy: Australia's First Superstar offered a poignant insight into the early life of one of Australia's greatest exports – Dr Germaine Greer. Apparently, she stumbled upon an early broadcast of the programme while enduring the bleakness of a British winter and would watch it regularly with the sound turned down, drinking in the sunlit backdrops with an expatriate hunger for home. I don't know what it was that made everybody else watch, but one of Australia's first home-grown television programmes proved a colossal global hit, sold to more than 128 countries. Sweden passed, because they didn't want their children growing up thinking that kangaroos could operate a short-wave radio, but everyone else was charmed by Skippy's astounding vocal fluency and her ability, unusual in marsupials, to pick up tea-cups and play the drums.
Stephen Oliver's entertaining film chased up cast and crew for affectionate anecdotage, incidentally capturing attitudes to workplace sexual harassment, animal welfare and labour conditions that would have the set closed down in an instant today. Skippy was a composite of at least 10 animals, either reacting to the off-camera sound of hammered catering trays or trying to escape back to the bush after being released from a hessian sack. The emu, when it made its appearances, was usually half-cut, a couple of Scotches being necessary to render it sufficiently amiable for film-work. And every woman on set had to endure the persistent attempts of the camera-crew to catch them with their knickers round their ankles when they went into the bush for a toilet break. Germaine Greer summed up: "Everything about it is home... the arrogance, the optimism, the sloppiness... of course, I recognise it all as home." Hope everything's in order next time she goes through immigration in Sydney.
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