TELEVISION / When British sang-froid makes your blood boil

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The Independent Culture
Corinne Simcock would not make a very good diplomat. The first words of "Growing Apart", Cutting Edge's moving documentary about British mothers visiting their children in Libya, were "I was just outraged . . . " She was outraged that mothers appeared to have no rights to see or visit their children, even when, as in this case, their children had been snatched away from them. But outrage, even minor disquiet, does not seem to be a useful emotion in the diplomatic corps. Indeed there were moments in Ann Taylor and John Purdie's film at which you wondered whether the Foreign Office approves of any emotions at all. Before I get too hoity-toity about this I had better concede that in most cases it's preferable to have a diplomat coolly assessing the situation rather than sitting there with tears coursing down his face and sobs shaking His Excellent shoulders. But watching Our Man in Libya face to face with distressed mothers you wondered whether Not Causing a Fuss might not be overvalued as a foreign policy initiative.

He seemed very well-briefed on what he couldn't do: "We're not able to change Libyan law," he replied loftily, when confronted by an angry mother over the absence of assistance. They hadn't even been able to help in something as trivial as getting Christmas presents to the children, she went on. Our Man, who had been looking a little unsettled by this maternal torrent, was back on solid ground: "The Foreign Office is not in the business of delivering mail, is all I can say." Jolly good, no hostages to fortune there.

Less constrained by the diplomatic terror of offence, Corinne Simcock had set about actually doing something and had discovered that the Foreign Office's assessment of the situation was less than accurate. There wasn't a stone wall in the way but an opendoor. She had arranged for seven mothers to fly out for a reunion, with the Libyan government picking up the tab for a three- week stay at a rather joyless seaside resort. A PR stunt, it was suggested, almost certainly correctly. But even so it was a PRstunt which managed to bring children and mothers together, however brief the encounter was and however bitter-sweet its effects.

There was little chance of happiness emerging from such an encounter. "Now I'll be able to go back home and know that she doesn't really need me," said one mother, and that was pretty much as good as it got. The lucky ones realised their children were happy, loved and well-adjusted - a knowledge that healed some wounds and opened others. The unlucky ones found themselves powerless to help unhappy and sometimes disturbed children, unable to communicate with daughters and sons who had forgotten their English. They were reduced to children themselves - unable to make their voices heard or to have their feelings considered. Simcock is now pursuing some custody cases through the Libyan courts, presumably to much sagacious head-shaking from the Foreign Office. One can only hope that she doesn't learn the arts of diplomacy in the meantime.

There was another reunion last night, of much less moment but nonetheless important to real devotees. NYPD Blue returned, after much excitable foreplay from Channel 4 continuity. It hasn't changed at all, thank goodness. The cameramen still appear to suffer from attention deficit, jerking around as if they've dozed off halfway through the shot and have had to be poked awake by the director. (Any documentary cameraman who was this bad at framing things would have been out of work years ago - far from being realistic it's one of the most mannered directorial styles currently visible on our screens.) And Kelly is still looking sensitively hangdog, presumably worn out by the strain of deciding which beautiful woman he's going to sleep with next.