Last Night's Viewing: Kids in the Middle, BBC4 - Our Food, BBC2
I thought of Tolstoy watching Kids in the Middle, Brian Hill's grim and engrossing account of the wreckage of a marriage, and specifically of those famous lines about how all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. It's one of the questions that hovers behind pretty much every documentary about a social issue: is this film representative of a common experience? Or is it representative only of what you see in front of you? To be able to answer "yes" to the first question is to armour your film against all kinds of accusations, or at least to offer a rationale for some invasions of privacy. But very often it's the second kind of film that really stays with you. By the end of Kids in the Middle, I'm not sure you'd learned a great deal about the kind of contact centres that were its notional subject. But you'd been given a painfully vivid picture of how a bad marriage can rot a family and hurt children.
For most of the first 20 minutes, you were wondering what Hill was keeping from you. He must know, you thought, why it is that Keith can only see his daughters on neutral ground and under supervision. So why doesn't he tell us, so that we can stop speculating and looking for clues? But then you found that looking for clues was partly what the film was about, weighing Dawn and Keith's incompatible accounts of the failure of their relationship for some idea of where the truth lay. Was he an example of the unjustly dispossessed father we've read so much about? Or did her wariness have some darker source that would only be clearer later? Both parties took the camera as a sympathetic witness, unaware that it was actually fatally dispassionate.
When it began it looked as if Keith might be the victim and Dawn the difficult one. But there was something odd about his encounters with his girls, a combination of rhetorical commitment to family fun and a dreary catechistical tone in actuality. He actually tried to give them homework at one point, in a quixotic attempt to kindle their love of reading. The children were bored, uneasy, and in one case openly hostile. And though you couldn't discount the possibility that that was the result of torn loyalties, the evidence started to stack up against Keith. He'd been caught letting Dawn's tyres down one night after their separation. And he'd questioned his daughters about their mother's friendship with a work colleague in ways that had failed to protect them from his suspicions. "You're very scared for your children's welfare," he said, explaining his actions. Not scared enough to see that your fear was the very thing that was damaging them, you thought.
What the film might be doing to them was another question, and not one that could be easily dismissed. In their eagerness to put their own side of the story, neither parent seemed to recognise that they were exposing their daughters horribly, and airing secrets that could only add to their distress. "Dawn, you tried to kill Nicola!" Keith had shouted at his wife during one row, alluding to the fact that she'd considered terminating her last pregnancy. Nicola, who was present when he'd shouted it, already knew this. Now everybody else does too. Should Hill have been more protective of these girls than their own parents had managed? Perhaps. You couldn't really say their privacy had been sacrificed to a societal good. But you couldn't easily stop watching once you'd started either, so skilfully was this commonplace tragedy unfolded.
Someone finally seems to have got Giles Coren's medication levels right. There was a bit of silly attention seeking in Our Food, but for the most part he was surprisingly bearable. The programme also included the memorable sight of a dead turkey being degassed, a bit like an avian whoopie cushion. I shall think of it next Christmas.
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