Last Night's TV: My Weird and Wonderful Family, Channel 4
The Blind Me, BBC3
Thursday 22 July 2010
Children are famously inclined to give skewed accounts of their own generation, a charm often exploited by comedians. On the face of it, you'd probably file Aspen Drewitt-Barlow's account of his and his brother's genesis under the category of winsome misunderstandings. "Me and Orlando were made from the same egg," he patiently explained at the beginning of My Weird and Wonderful Family, "but the egg split and then Orlando went in the freezer for three years. Orlando is my identical twin." Not sure that can be correct, Aspen, you thought. Orlando is four years younger than you for one thing. But Aspen had got it right – this unusual family history having come about after Aspen's fathers, Tony and Barrie, had decided to postpone Orlando's birth to a more convenient date. Both boys were the result of a kind of relay-race conception, with the embryos being supplied by a biological mother and then implanted into a surrogate to be carried to term. The arrangement is tricky, borderline illegal in this country but Tony and Barrie, who'd done very well in the cosmetics business, could afford to go to California to hire the necessary uteri and wombs and also fight the resulting court case over their right to be declared the parents.
All this caused quite a bit of fuss 10 years ago, with tabloid outrage and Eamonn Holmes muttering on GMTV about what was "natural". Tony and Barrie received death threats and were accused of purchasing human lifestyle accessories. As they prepared for the arrival of a new addition to the family, Daisy Asquith had gone to see how they were getting on. This time round the biological mother – a Californian catwalk model – had been selected from an online catalogue ("We just went very superficial this time to be quite honest and went for the better looking," said Barrie) and incubation space booked in Donna, a surrogate mother they'd used previously. "There's never any trauma with you because you're such a professional," said Tony, talking to her over the phone to California. The camera cut to his oldest daughter, Saffron, looking enigmatically blank.
It was a slightly tendentious edit that would be very easy, if you were hostile, to interpret as an unstated sorrow. Might this be the trauma that motherhood as mere transaction leads to, you were half invited to ask. It's equally possible, of course, that Saffron – like any child – had got a bit bored with grown-up talk and was wondering when she could get away. True, she did seem sad that her biological mother didn't want to have much to do with her. And it was true too that Barry's attitude to women and childbirth sometimes left something to be desired (rather literally in his case). Flying to America to take delivery of his new babies, he talked of the forthcoming birth: "I'm hoping it's going to be a C-Section... the thought of that baby pushing out like Freddy Krueger... ugh.. (he made a gagging face) it makes me feel faint." But I don't think there was any question that he and Tony loved their children, and had created a family that appeared utterly normal in every respect but their creation. Barry, camp and flamboyantly doting (he bought Saffron a pony and a mink coat for her birthday), will probably embarrass all of them close to death by the time their teens are out, but then what teenager isn't mortified by a parent at some time? And, yes, there might be moments when they miss the presence of a mother, but then that's true of quite a lot of families for other reasons. Revisiting GMTV to show off their new twins, Tonie and Barry found Eamonn Holmes had shifted his position from tactfully critical to ingratiatingly avuncular ("It'll save you a fortune on Sunday," he said to the children condescendingly. "No Mother's Day cards to buy") and Tony made a point about "normality" and "oddity" that struck home. "These kids' parents have been together for 23 years and love each other to bits," he said. "So maybe that's what sets us apart from a lot of families these days."
My Weird and Wonderful Family blurred the lines between the tribulations of being these particular children and the trials of being any child, something that was also true of The Blind Me, which addressed the lives of four blind young people. Were their problems and anxieties exclusively down to their lack of sight or did they come second to the frets and anxieties all teenagers and young people face? Take Dwight, for example, a very engaging young music student impatient to get his first girlfriend, who was seen visiting a Brighton disco with his friends and getting a bit carried away during a chat-up. Dwight certainly isn't the first teenage boy to have misread the signals while coming on to a girl, but it was harder for him to find out, since he had no way to see the SOS signals her eyebrows were flashing at her friends. And Scott and Katy, a blind couple living in London, seemed far more preoccupied with the universal problem of getting a man and a woman's feelings about marriage to align than they did about the difficulties of flat-hunting while blind. Dwight eventually ended up getting over-excited about a blind girl he'd meet years earlier and tracked down through Facebook. It may well end in tears, but if he got through life without making that kind of mistake he really would be a freak.
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