Last Night's TV - Timeshift: Crime & Punishment – the Story of Corporal Punishment, BBC4; My Brother the Islamist, BBC3; Bored to Death, Sky Atlantic

A history lesson that hits home
Click to follow

In 2002, shortly before he took up his new job as Archbishop of Canterbury, I interviewed Dr Rowan Williams for a magazine feature called "Out to Lunch". He was still the Archbishop of Wales, and so we had lunch in a trattoria in Newport, where I greatly admired his formidable intellect, dazzling eloquence and manifest goodness, not to mention his heroic boldness, being so heavily bearded, for ordering a large dish of copiously sauced pasta. As I later wrote, the slight dab of vongole sauce on his whiskers seemed like an admirable show of mortal frailty.

He gave thoughtful consideration to all my questions; in truth, more consideration than some of them perhaps deserved, for possessed by the spirit of the sixth form, I asked him whether he had ever broken one of the Ten Commandments, or been guilty of one of the Seven Sins. I also asked him how he felt about the prospect of Prince Charles marrying Camilla Parker Bowles, and felt sure that his thoughts on that subject would, on publication of my interview, make a news story in the national press.

It wasn't that, however, which subsequently exercised The Daily Mail, but his admission to me that he had once smacked his daughter. He had regretted it ever since, but he had done it, and the admission presented the Mail with a page lead, causing some kerfuffle at Lambeth Palace. A spokesman claimed that Dr Williams had been speaking off the record, which wasn't the case, but it showed how extraordinarily sensitive modern Britain had become to the issue of smacking children, and last night's fascinating Timeshift: Crime & Punishment – the Story of Corporal Punishment explained how that sensitivity evolved, showing a clip of a studio audience – in the 1970s, judging by the impressive width of the ties – being asked how many of them had never smacked their children. Not a single hand went up.

Rachel Jardine's documentary explored other aspects of corporal punishment, focusing on how it has been used in schools, and also, through the centuries, on social miscreants. The public flogging of men was outlawed in the 1830s, for example, but not until 1962 was it banned in our prisons. As for our schoolrooms, in 1986, legislation outlawing corporal punishment in state schools was passed by the narrowest possible margin, 231 votes to 230. Apparently, the bill would have been defeated had 12 Tory MPs not been prevented from reaching the House of Commons in time, by crowds assembling for the marriage the following day of Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson. So there we are. Let nobody say that the hapless Duke of York hasn't done his country at least one good turn.

Whatever, it was the material on smacking that most interested me, perhaps because I am a reformed smacker myself. I stopped on the day that I stood over one of my sons, who was then aged four, preparing to smack his bottom for some epic (yet long-forgotten) act of naughtiness. I had smacked him perhaps five times before, and his older sister once or twice, but as he cowered in anticipation, I resolved never to do it again, and never did, subscribing to the view that I have never managed to articulate quite as well as Dr Williams, who told me in the trattoria that day that he had come to realise that the right of a child not to be subjected to physical violence should be no less than that of an adult.

All that said, people can get irritatingly sanctimonious about these things, and I understand the view that a sharp smack, perhaps administered to stop a child running into the road, might be a useful deterrent. But the notion that by sparing the rod you spoil the child was neatly undermined in this documentary, not so much by those who have condemned that approach to parenting as by those who have endorsed it.

Among plenty of great archive material, my favourite clip was that of a frightful couple, interviewed in 1967 on Man Alive, who patiently explained that they used the cane on their children "when they start leaping about on the furniture and that sort of thing". The mother smiled sweetly, and then, almost inevitably, added: "It hurts me more than it does them, I'm sure." I'm sure. If only Jardine had then unveiled the children, asking them as adults whether they felt they had benefited from such a harsh regime of parental discipline. Whether, indeed, they had become the kind of parents their own parents were.

I don't know what Sharia law has to say about parental discipline, but I don't suppose it advocates gentle reasoning. My Brother the Islamist was a gripping yet rather depressing film, made by a chap called Robb Leach, who grew up in sunny Weymouth to become a tree surgeon, while his step-brother, Rich, grew up to become a jihadist called Salahuddin.

Leach followed Salahuddin to east London, to find out what had turned him, within six months of converting to Islam, into a loudspeaker-toting fundamentalist. He didn't really reach a conclusion, but he did meet other converts preaching global jihad, including 17-year-old Ben, another white boy from Weymouth. That they reminded me strongly of daft Barry (Nigel Lindsay) in Chris Morris's sublime dark comedy Four Lions did not, alas, make them remotely funny. Bored to Death, by happy contrast, is hilarious. Maybe next week I'll leave myself enough space to do it full justice.