Last Night's TV - Neil Morrissey: Care Home Kid, BBC2; One Born Every Minute, Channel 4; Bored to Death, Sky Atlantic
Won over by a man behaving bravely
Tuesday 29 March 2011
Fifteen years ago, the BBC ran a poll, part of BBC Television's 60th-birthday celebrations, to determine what the viewing public considered to be the greatest TV programmes, presenters, actors, whatever, of all time. In every category, a panel of supposed experts was invited to produce a shortlist, from which voters had to pick a favourite.
I say "supposed" because I was one of them. I was on the situation-comedy panel, and the BBC asked us to include a contemporary show, which we did. At the time the most popular home-grown sitcom was Men Behaving Badly, so on the list it went, together with Fawlty Towers, Porridge, Dad's Army and Steptoe & Son, any one of which would have been a decent choice, but blow me down if MBB didn't win, a dispiriting reminder that the viewing public has the collective memory of a goldfish.
So, by extension, most of us presumably have trouble now recalling a time when Men Behaving Badly was deemed the greatest sitcom in British television history, and when one of the actors it made famous, Neil Morrissey, was very much television's dish du jour. But it was, and he was, which makes it all the more extraordinary that so little was known about the seven years he spent in a Stoke-on-Trent children's home, after being taken away from his family at the age of 10 for habitual stealing.
He was put into care on the same day as his older brother, Steve, to whom he was extremely close. But they were sent to different homes, and didn't see each other for another 10 years. Heaven knows what kind of psychological effect this dislocation, and the sudden, forced separation from his parents, had on Morrissey, though he made a stab at explaining it here. I remember interviewing him in the mid-1990s, and while he made no secret of his background, he didn't much like to talk about it either. On the whole, the media respected this, which shows how standards have plummeted even in the past 15 years. Respect, for a celebrity's right to privacy? How quaint.
Anyway, Morrissey has now chosen to lift the lid himself on his time in care, and a two-part documentary, Care Home Kid, is the compelling and poignant result. I don't know why he has gone so public now. A fleeting reference to near-bankruptcy following some failed business ventures perhaps offered a clue, compounded by the fact that his star, unlike that of MBB's Martin Clunes and Caroline Quentin, has fallen right out of the TV firmament. Whatever, he remains an engaging screen presence, and there could hardly be anyone better qualified to examine Britain's care-home culture, currently responsible for the raising of almost 90,000 children.
Encouragingly, Morrissey visited an establishment in Scotland, Lothian Villa, which seemed like a model of how a children's home should be. But the focus was mainly on his own experiences almost 40 years ago, and those of his contemporaries, some of whom suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their so-called carers. He didn't, mercifully. But the most harrowing recollections came from those who had been in the same home as his brother Steve, who wasn't around to tell his own story, having died, aged 37.
Morrissey's mother didn't contribute, either, which was hardly surprising. Firing the whole project was his own enduring sense of outrage that such a trauma had been visited upon him because of petty thievery, and he went to visit the man who'd been the family's social worker with, as he put it, "guns loaded". But the social worker convinced him that he'd been put into care to protect rather than punish him: his Irish immigrant parents, both psychiatric nurses, had effectively allowed their four sons to become feral.
That our futures are dependent on who brings us into the world, and in what circumstances, has been the subtext of One Born Every Minute, which concluded last night. Ostensibly a documentary series about the ins, and more specifically the outs, at the Princess Anne maternity hospital in Southampton, One Born Every Minute, it has become increasingly clear, is actually a social, economic and cultural study of contemporary Britain that just happens to be through the prism of childbirth.
I have feared for some of the newborn babies carried through the swing-doors into a big and, for them, not especially promising world, but happily the final programme ended with no such qualms. Caroline and Chris, the parents of triplets, while understandably daunted to have started a day as a family of two and ended it as a family of five, seemed on top of their challenging situation. And you felt that Sarah and her younger partner, 25-year-old Nando, would be OK too. Nando was a self-proclaimed mummy's boy, but mummy's boys often make good daddies. Those of us who do have long TV memories can even remember one in a sitcom: Frank Spencer.
Another hapless sitcom hero was born last night. In Bored to Death, written by Jonathan Ames, Jason Schwartzman plays, erm, Jonathan Ames, a Brooklyn-based writer who whimsically decides to moonlight as a private detective. In fact, the show has been going since 2009 in the US, and on first acquaintance, it's extremely welcome here. Who knows, it might yet be voted the greatest of all time.
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