Last Night's TV: Superhuman: Britain's Biggest Babies, ITV1
Back to You, MORE4
Baby boomers need a helping hand
Thursday 12 June 2008
The star of Superhuman: Britain's Biggest Babies was Joseph, who weighed 14 pounds at birth, twice the size of the average newborn, and heavy enough to win him a spot on Richard & Judy. At two and half, he was wearing jeans designed for nine-year-olds. The commentary described him as "a three-year-old trapped in an eight-year-old's body", though the real danger must be that there's an eight-year-old trapped somewhere inside him – he could have swallowed it when nobody was looking.
Until very recently – five years ago, somebody here suggested – babies Joseph's size were rare; but now, outsize babies are becoming more and more common, a by-product of ever-rising levels of obesity, and most of them the offspring of overweight mothers. According to the commentary for this film, the change "signals a sickness in society", to which I have to say: look who's talking. If it's evidence of a sickness in society you want, then take a good look at all the television programmes dedicated to pointing fingers at the freaks, the outliers from the mean, the fattest, the hairiest, the ugliest. And if we are, as a society, getting pudgier, how much of that is down to comfort eating brought on by television, with its constant reminders that we're too fat, too hairy, too ugly?
In this case, the finger-pointing was disguised by euphemisms – these children and their mothers were always "big", which could mean muscular or large-framed, rather than straight-out "fat" or "obese" – and medical panic-mongering. It's true that these really large babies bring all sorts of problems. One is the sheer awkwardness of popping one out in the first place. Karen, who weighs 23 stone, talked of the horror of her first pregnancy (Shane, at birth, we were told, was the size of an average Christmas turkey), when going to the lavatory cost so much effort and pain that she often just sat where she was and wet herself. Then there is the birth: anaesthetists unable to locate the right spot for an epidural among the flab, melon heads and sumo bodies tearing a swathe through the birth canal. We also met Courtney, who was left with torn muscles in her neck, unable to hold her head up properly. It's not easy for the child, either, who afterwards has to face up to all the potential complications of fatness, such as diabetes and, most importantly, teasing: Joseph's mother, Sara, and her identical twin, Lisa, talked about the bullying they had to put up with at school. Lisa burst into tears at the recollection.
Even if there's a real subject here, though, the programme reduced it to a series of scary anecdotes. There was a feeble effort to bring in some science, including "shocking experiments on rats"; actually, this was nothing more shocking than feeding rats a diet high in fat, sugar and salt, which I'm guessing the rats enjoyed. It turned out that the offspring of mother rats fed on this simulated junk-food diet showed a preference for junk themselves. This is worrying, the commentary said, because we have a lot of DNA in common with rats (which doesn't sound like good science: does this mean that we could live in sewers and thrive on a diet of faeces?). I'd have liked to hear less about genes and more about levels of income and education; but there are some kinds of sickness in our society that prime-time TV doesn't like to think about.
The strategy of basing schedules around high-profile US signings – Heroes on BBC2, House and CSI on Five – which has worked so well for British channels over the years, seems to be coming unstuck, what with the writers' strike in the US, and what seems to be a growing fashion for cancelling shows in the middle of the season. More4 was caught out last year with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and this year with the sitcom Back to You. Is it mere coincidence that both these shows were set behind the scenes at a TV show? Could it be that TV executives have overestimated the public's appetite for such things?
The demise of Back to You was news because it was supposed to be a vehicle for Kelsey Grammer, star of Frasier, one of the most successful sitcoms in history. The situation here is that Grammer's character is a TV news anchorman who, after a decade of success in LA, gets fired and returns to his home town, Pittsburgh, to rebuild his career in local TV. It's a standard-issue newsroom spoof, based on the notion that all TV people are prima donnas with good skin and rodent brains. There are some OK lines: responding to a compliment on her youthful looks, his on-screen partner said, "You even said it with a straight face." Grammer: "I'm chock-full of Botox." Ach, you had to be there. I'm not a big Grammer fan, but his timing is flawless. Unfortunately, the script seems to be chock-full of Botox, too: all the wrinkles of character and situation that made Frasier interesting have been smoothed out. In any case, better not get too cosy with it, when you know it's not long for this world.
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