The title Upgrade Me, with its echo of Super Size Me, threatened to warn viewers about the consequences when a man forces himself to buy every new incarnation of every piece of digital electronica in the world. But it was misleading.
Simon Armitage, who guided us through the forest of modern gadgetry, wasn't out to rubbish the world of MP3s and iMacs. A witty, sardonic poet from West Yorkshire, the homeland of Luddism, he seemed an unlikely techno-geek, yet confessed to an obsession with upgrading. At his home, he showed off a drawer stuffed with elderly Walkmans, mobiles and an electronic diary which required its owner to learn hieroglyphics to write "10am Dentist".
"Excavating my drawer makes me question my attitude to technology," he said. "Am I going to continue upgrading for ever?" It was one of several non-questions that studded the programme ("What drives our appetite for gadgets? Do they make us frantic and anxious?") as Armitage strove to extract deep significance from a simple consumer phenomenon.
In John Lewis, he learned that the range of computers on display changes completely four times a year, and that people upgrade for reasons of status and having what their friends have. Well I never. In a comprehensive school, he discovered that 49 out of 50 of the kids had a mobile phone (why didn't he ask the refusenik to explain herself?) and every one had a digital camera. After wondering if social pressure made children desire gadgets (hold the front page), Armitage showed them an old gramophone and asked what they thought it was. "It's a radio, isn't it?" said a boy, "You can sit on it while you're listening to music."
It was a watchable, though scarcely revelatory, stroll through the antiseptic world of hi-tech fetishism, and it turned darker as Armitage visited the Samsung plant in south Korea: "Gadget HQ in Gadget City". Here he found a "Home of the Future" where a woman activated a TV screen on which to pinpoint the exact whereabouts, in school or in the street, of her offspring. (An on-screen photo was helpfully captioned "Younger Son".) Armitage blinked at this over-surveillance. He also looked a bit sick when inspecting the in-bathroom diagnosis machine that monitors your heart and lungs and will, in due course, take the place of a hospital. For a moment, it looked as if his ancestors' Luddite spirit had returned. "The future," he concluded waspishly, "is a question of personal taste."
The Secret Life of Twins was full of believe-it-or-don't tales of identical twins achieving the same grades in the same subjects, falling for the same partner, or giving birth to more identicals. It began and ended with a benign, multicoloured and nicely sound-tracked freak show in the garden of St Thomas' Hospital, where hundreds of "nature's clones" disported themselves wearing identical clothes, gurning for the cameras and revelling in that creepy human symmetry that always makes twins look like the subjects of Diane Arbus photographs.
The programme asked, a little relentlessly, whether genes or environment determines the people we are, but was rescued by its (identical) talking heads – such as the brothers Ian and Paul who live thousands of miles apart, Ian the picture of health in New Zealand, Paul a hard-drinking exercise-phobe in Durham. When Paul had a heart attack, Ian was contacted and told to have a check-up. Being a fitness fiend, he scoffed at the idea – but went for tests anyway and discovered he was also heading for a major cardiac arrest.
Most affecting was the story of Mia and Alexandra, separated as babies by an unfeeling adoption agency, and brought up apart, Mia in Sacramento and Alex on a Norwegian fjord. Their meeting, at six years old, was wonderful to see – without a shared language, even to say "Hello", they wordlessly waved at each other from a yard away, then ran off to swim and remained inseparable thereafter – and their parting a real tear-jerker.
For all the serious, earnest genetic discussion at its core, the programme was at its filmic best when it returned to the money shot of all the milling, shyly smiling twins in the London sunshine – many of them apparently joining viewers in thinking: "Jeez – aren't twins weird?"Reuse content