It's always a pleasure to be asked to fill in for an absent television reviewer. For some reason, however, such invitations tend to fall on dates when the evening's programming landscape is a touch barren. I'm told it's half-term at the moment, hence the regular chap's holiday. Frankly, I suspect he had a quick look at the TV listings before booking the time off, too.
My vacationing colleague, you see, has already filled a previous column with his views on last night's essential programmes: Spooks, Whitechapel and A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss. Which means I'm not really allowed to tell you what I think of Spooks (reports suggest it faces the axe after this series, which might not be such a bad thing). I haven't been watching Whitechapel, or Gatiss; there are only so many hours in a Monday evening.
All of which ought to explain why I'm bringing you my thoughts on: (1) A worthy science documentary about the human genome – which, let's face it, doesn't lend itself to scintillating copy. And (2) A comedy documentary by the bloke whom many thought didn't deserve to win the Foster's comedy award at this year's Edinburgh Festival, but did anyway. I was almost going to review The Hairy Bikers' Cook-Off as well. Luckily the DVD wasn't available in time.
But anyway, to work. At the turn of the millennium, scientists announced that they'd cracked the genetic code, mapping human DNA and thus ushering in a new age of revolutionary medicines for every conceivable condition: cancer, heart disease, diabetes and so forth. A decade on, Horizon wanted to know whether they'd delivered on that promise. Three victims of genetic disease were sent to find out.
Sophie Longton, a 23-year-old teacher, has cystic fibrosis, which gives her a life expectancy of just 38. Emma Duncan, whose mother and grandmother both died from breast cancer, has already beaten the "Big C" three times. Tom Fitzsimons, a marathon runner with a huge tattoo on his back, is a recovering alcoholic who once drank 16 pints per day.
Are they likely to find salvation in gene therapy? To varying extents and timescales. Alcoholism, Tom learned, is not a straightforward chromosomal defect. Caused by a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors, it could take years to grasp fully. Sophie, too, was left more in hope than expectation. The treatments being trialled for CF are in their early stages. But she was cheered by meeting Rhys Evans, who in 2000 became the first baby to be treated using gene therapy at Great Ormond Street hospital. Born a so-called "bubble boy", without a working immune system, he's now a healthy 10-year-old.
Emma was greeted with better news. By the time her young baby is big enough to feel threatened by his genetic inheritance, cuddly scientists assured her he'd have access to greatly advanced cancer treatments, should he need them. In fact, buried 40 or more minutes into this sober documentary was what sounded suspiciously like a cure for cancer: an in-development drug, without side effects, which targets vulnerable cancer cells and destroys them. The Daily Express got hold of the news yesterday and splashed it across its front page, as it tends to do with any cancer-related factoid, but don't let that put you off.
Horizon wasn't showy, but it was quietly informative, low-key public service broadcasting. Russell Kane's Freak Like Me, by contrast, was a decent argument for those swingeing BBC cuts. Since writing that earlier paragraph – the one about the Foster's award – I've consulted one of this newspaper's senior arts journalists. She informs me that, while there was another act whom many believed should have won this year (Bo Burnham, FYI), Kane was nonetheless a worthy choice and deserved the prize in previous years.
That being the case, he's been very poorly served by BBC3, because Freak Like Me is the sort of lazy commission that has people tearing up their TV licences. The premise: Kane, who makes vastly exaggerated claims for his own eccentricity, scours the nation to find a handful of other people with not especially odd (but frequently deeply annoying) habits.
There's Jay, for example, who spends a lot of time cleaning his car. Or Christian, 16, who has ambitions to be a New York cop (he's from Salford). Or the 21-year-old Essex man with preposterous facial hair, who wears a brand-new pair of boxer shorts every morning. Or Carly, 29, who loves nothing better than to squeeze the spots on her obliging boyfriend's back.
I felt convinced that most of them were over-egging the extent of their obsessions. Kane's own allegedly wacky habits, meanwhile, fell well within the bounds of normal human behaviour: paying for things with exact change; avoiding cracks in the pavement; washing up his cooking utensils before eating his dinner. He made a number of inane comments about how "quirks make us human" and "habits are cool". Well, Russell, some habits are cool. Mountaineering, for example. Bursting your boyfriend's back-ne? Not cool.
Had this been broadcast between two antiques shows somewhere in the middle of the afternoon, it would be almost forgiveable. But this was nine o'clock – prime-time's prime-time. Presumably BBC3's excuse is that it's a dead slot, since everyone would be watching Spooks or Whitechapel (or, at a push, Horizon) at that time anyway. How I wish I'd been one of them.