Last Night's TV - The Biology of Dads, BBC4; Tribal Wives, BBC2; Mongrels, BBC3
Men of an uncertain age
One wonders a little about the timing of the BBC's Fatherhood series – at a time when Wimbledon and the World Cup are not making it easy for even the most enlightened male to find time for the little grace notes of child-rearing. As one of the children asked about parental roles in
The Biology of Dads put it: "My dad always watches the football and my mum does the cleaning up." Or watches a season about fatherhood, perhaps, muttering darkly as her worst fears about paternal deficiency are confirmed. And, though football isn't quite the magnetic distraction for me that I know it is for other males, I confess that I was a reluctant viewer as well. The problem with fatherhood documentaries – if you have three teenagers – is that they're all too likely to tell you what you did wrong 10 years ago.
Or even longer in the case of The Biology of Dads, which began with a prospective father crooning endearments at his wife's pregnancy bump, establishing that even at this stage the unborn child responds to its father's voice. As it happens, I did conduct a small experiment along these lines with my own first-born, repeatedly informing him that "Lima is the capital of Peru", but I cannot report that this attempt at hothousing produced any notable results. He showed no special aptitude for geography and isn't overwhelmed by mysterious feelings of all-encompassing comfort whenever Peru is mentioned. And if you think that experiment lacked rigour, you may not have been entirely satisfied with the "experiments" Laverne Antrobus conducted in The Biology of Dads, all of them short on controls and sample size.
The bullet points were these. All those young men who fear that fatherhood will emasculate them are dead right. Not only do the level of female hormones rise in men when they hold newborn babies, but their testosterone levels nose-dive at the same time – this being nature's answer to the fact that males are inclined to look at a newborn cub and think "Should I look after it... or eat it?" Fortunately, the testosterone levels do recover, because the masculinity of the father comes into its own later during play. Apparently – and please address your letters about gender stereotyping and social reinforcement to the programme and not to me – fathers encourage children to take more risks and improve their language acquisition by talking way above their heads. In other words, their cluelessness is not a liability but a positive benefit.
That was the underlying text here. Yes, you can take some time off to watch the football, but your continued presence is essential to the psychological health and future development of your child. Strikingly, the continued presence of a father can even affect the rate at which daughters mature, with girls from broken marriages, or with absentee fathers reaching puberty earlier than those with a dad at home. It's an effect explained by a kind of evolutionary scramble to secure another protective male (re indignant letters, please see earlier note).
That fathers can have a profound impact on their children, even when they're not around, was underlined by this week's Tribal Wives, the series in which dissatisfied women go halfway around the world to be dissatisfied in a different location in order to discover that it may be better to be dissatisfied with a flushing toilet. This week, Becky, a depressed London PA, went to the island of Kitava, off Papua New Guinea, a Bounty bar vision of paradise. "Yams are at the centre of island life," announced the voiceover, which didn't promise much in the way of cultural sophistication. Sure enough, yams were everywhere, even painted ones hung from the eaves of the houses as part of the annual yam festival, which seemed to be Christmas rolled up with Easter and a hefty side serving of yams. Becky went through the usual motions – jibbing slightly against the patriarchal restraints of island society then bonding with a local woman who was likely to be left with nothing out of the exercise except a sense of loss and curtailed horizons. But she also rather touchingly talked about her unresolved need to have some evidence – however slender – that her own father gave a damn. It wasn't a Pacific island that held the answer, it was somewhere like Peckham or Hoxton, or wherever he lives now.
Mongrels has been described as a puppet show for adults – a worrying phrase, less for the "puppets" bit than the word "adult", which usually means exactly the opposite. It's a kind of soft-toy sitcom, centred on a group of inner-city animals, which include Marion (an overweight cat with an accent who wanders around the southern Mediterranean), a ghetto-talking pigeon and a sensitive fox called Nelson, who has problems with confrontation. The "adult'" bit turns out to mean swear words and a slightly strained determination not to play safe with the comedy. There were jokes here about Christopher Reeve's accident, Harold Shipman and the discovery of Anne Frank by German troops (she's exposed because she shouts "Yahtzee" at the wrong moment). It does have its laughs, though, because the script isn't entirely about crass shock value. Last night's episode, for example, featured a Romeo and Juliet storyline in which Nelson the fox fell in love with a chicken (they'd both been economical with the truth on an online dating site). "There's a Nando's around the corner," he suggested, when they first met. "Oh... sorry... I didn't think." Puppets, yes. Funny, yes. But not really for grown-ups.
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