A couple of weeks ago, I was in Antigua, where a local guy giving me a tour of the island insisted that there was more than a little truth in the reputation that West Indian men have of being feckless and very often absentee fathers. "On Antigua, we say that the most confusing day of the year is Father's Day," he told me, with a mirthless chuckle. But what of all the dutiful, loving Antiguan fathers unfairly tarnished by this jibe? There must be plenty of them, but I confess that I didn't spare them much thought until I watched A Century of Fatherhood, the enlightening and poignant opening salvo in a BBC season on fatherhood, and the first of three documentaries about how attitudes to fathering have evolved these past 100 years or so.
Not as much as you'd think, was the unexpected answer proposed here. A series of social historians popped up to suggest that the Victorian and Edwardian father of popular perception – whether the aloof middle-class paterfamilias who believed his children should be seen and not heard, or the working-class tyrant who habitually took his belt to his kids as soon as he got home from the pub – is largely a mythical creature created by contemporary novelists, early film-makers and, in the case of the working-class brute, by temperance campaigners seeking to demonise drink.
According to Professor Jo Bourke, for every one working-class father in the early years of the last century who had nothing to do with his children, there were 14 who had plenty of caring involvement. This she gleaned from reading no fewer than 250 autobiographies of the period, so her authority is hard-earned. She also read loads of soldiers' letters sent home from the trenches during the First World War, and most of them expressed great interest in how the kiddies were getting on, and heartbreak at missing them growing up.
This testimony was supported by several very elderly contributors who remembered their fathers from the 1910s and 1920s. In fact, the recollections of Phyllis – who recalled her house being filled with the sound of shrieking laughter from the moment her dad came home from work on a Friday evening to the moment he left on a Monday morning – made me as a father of three feel ever so slightly inadequate. It's true that I had a rosette saying "World's Best Dad" given to me by my 11-year-old on Sunday, Father's Day, but it's also true that a few hours later I was telling him off for fighting with his brother over a plastic harmonica, and later, more fiercely, for juggling too close to the barbecue.
The truth of the matter in any age, I suspect, is that the attitude of most fathers towards their children, like that of most mothers, embraces adoration and irritation, tolerance and intolerance. I can see why the makers of A Century of Fatherhood wanted to challenge the stereotypical view of fathers 100 years ago as remote or cruel, but they fell into the trap of straining too far in the opposite direction, finding fewer contrasts than there manifestly are between the father of 1910 and the father of 2010. Changing social conventions, if nothing else, surely make them very different beasts. Indeed, even Phyllis, she of the house filled with the sound of shrieking laughter every weekend, remembered her dad's cane hanging in the larder.
Still, homburgs, bowlers and flat caps off to the researchers for finding one or two really marvellous witnesses to bygone eras. Best of all was George Short, a retired miner from County Durham, who disapproved of corporal punishment and raised his children in the 1930s with an attitude that would now be considered almost definitive of the expression "new man".
A movement known as Fathercraft had started in London in 1920, responding to developments in child psychology that showed that children prospered from the hands-on involvement of both parents, but I don't suppose the Fathercraft movement ever made much impact on 1930s Durham. In any case, George Short didn't need any fancy academic endorsement for his conviction that a father should play a full role in his children's upbringing. He read Dickens to them (chief miscreant, ironically, in popularising the notion of the aloof or tyrannical Victorian father), and considered their poor behaviour to be a failure on his part, not theirs. He reckoned that the best way to get them to toe the line was to win their confidence. Even when he lost his job at the height of the Depression, he saw it as an opportunity to spend more time playing with and educating his children. Heck, he could have had his very own movement, and maybe it's not too late, even if the credits brought the unwelcome but not wholly unexpected news that he, and several other very old contributors, died shortly after filming.
Fatherhood also loomed large in the first of a new series of Being Erica, the Canadian time-travel psychodrama (which at least can't be accused of a lack of originality, Canadian time-travel psychodramas being mercifully thin on the ground) that somehow manages to be very watchable despite, at times, being almost completely indecipherable. Last night, Erica (the lovely Erin Karpluk) was whisked all the way back to 1998, and discovered that her therapist, Dr Tom, had once been suicidal, owing to an estrangement from his daughter Sarah. I think the idea is that in helping Dr Tom through his fathering issues in 1998, Erica can resolve her own problems in 2010, but I can't swear by it.