No sperm talk, please, we're British
Sunday 29 September 1996
The CSA was the focus of the second part of The System (BBC2, Thursday), a documentary series taking an inside look at the social security system, its clients, enforcers, executives and political masters. To fulfil its objectives of making absent fathers pay for their offspring (thus saving money for the overburdened taxpayer and giving justice to under-provided mums), the CSA delves further into the incredibly messy private lives of modern Britons than any other state agency in the country's history. And that is why its employees end up "talking sperm" to strangers.
The first client was a Brummie single mother called Kimberley. Yes, she told the CSA lady, she did know who Tyler's father was. And no, she hadn't had sexual intercourse with anyone else. How dare they ask her that, most viewers will have fumed - until the official revealed that they hadn't had much luck tracing Shannon's dad either. Or Matthew's dad. "It hurts me that they never bothered," said Kim-berley. But not much, one felt. It was a very nicely contrived puncturing of the fragile balloon of one's own easy judgments.
And this was the real triumph of an excellent programme. While heroes and villains were in short supply, tragedies and dramas abounded. The bullying man who wouldn't pay up because his children were conceived by "artificial insemination by donor" was a clear rotter, but everyone else could have been me or you. David, the rich bloke who had a fling with a casino croupier, then went to Tenerife with her ("it was a disaster"), and finally found himself a completely unwilling father of an accidental baby born to a woman he didn't like. His sense of injustice that her decision involved him in a lifetime commitment was palpable. He was almost barmily determined to fight, as was the utterly useless dad, chucked out of home for being pointless by his capable wife, and now being pursued for a tiny maintenance. There was an almost heroic Thomas Paine-like quality to their resistance.
So you saw his side of it. You saw hers. You saw the seeming impossibility of the task before the agency's employees, and the almost impossible complacency of the junior minister (a Beatle-haired nonentity called Andrew Mitchell) when asked about the problem.
The show looked lovely, and the access was fantastic and all that. But rather than wax lyrical about the craft, I want to praise the journalism. This programme took us inside an immensely difficult area, where prejudice abounds. By its choice of interviewees and its treatment of the officials it shunned facile judgments, while still telling a coherent story.
So here's my second point. Why was Defence of the Realm, the well-made (and recently screened) fly-on-the-wall series about the Ministry of Defence, shown on BBC1, while The System goes out on the less popular channel? It may be simply an accident of commissioning, of course. But it is equally possible that since television tends to be run by blokes (or women who think like blokes), Harriers and Trident missiles and uniforms are thought to be more sexy than females talking about kids. This, as shown by the very high audience for this week's Panorama on parenting (made by my partner - interest declared), is almost certainly wrong.
The System's lack of partiality is welcome after the recent Rantzen rumpuses, where a determination to find someone guilty has undermined confidence in television investigation. So I approached Citizen's Arrest (Channel 4, Tuesday) with anxiety. In it a male Esther, called Joe Layburn, accompanies a wronged person on a quest to achieve redress. The USP of the show is that the personable Layburn (he's just an ordinary Joe) goes everywhere with the victim, prompting, advising and sympathising (he asked "how do you feel?" six times in 25 minutes).
But, of course, Joe is not just on the citizen's side - he's on his own side, needing to make a watch- able programme and to collar a villain. Knowing this makes you worry that perhaps you won't hear the full tale - the grey areas will be ignored for the sake of paint- ing in primary colours.
Joe's charge was Vicky, a brave woman with lemur-like dark ringed eyes. Vicky was a victim of over-high radiotherapy doses. As a result she had a colostomy, a urostomy and a need to swig morphine straight from the bottle. She wanted answers. But, she agonised, would seeking them with the cameras not "wind them [the doctors responsible] up"? "It might do," replied Joe. "Let's do it anyway."
Strangely, it was the arrogant response of the hospital's chief executive himself that convinced me that Layburn and Vicky were right. Denied a meeting or an interview, they eventually walked in- to the hospital with a camera, and strolled unmolested into the exec's plush office suite. Out he came to tell them that he'd "like you to leave". What about an interview? "Not in view of the way you've handled it." But, of course, he'd already refused a meeting. A few days later he sent a bullying fax, in answer to all Vicky's ques- tions about her pitiable condition, simply refusing to answer any of her queries. Layburn had got his man.
But screen arsehole of the week was not the suit with the empathy bypass, but Andrew Double-Barrelled, who made a video spectacle of himself for Moving People (Channel 4, Wednesday). His was one of three stories of changed domicile, but was easily the most arresting. Andrew is in his early twenties and moving from his parents' village home near Wigan to a flat in Manchester.
Andrew is not an attractive boy. Even his "old dear" was happy to see him go. "It's time for him to move on," she admitted. Bleary, leering and red-featured, all Andrew would miss, he said, would be his own en suite bathroom. His ambition was to "get a Porsche by the time I'm 26, with big personalised numberplates, and roar back into the village".
His new place? "A bachelor pad. Should be able to impress a few birds with this." His goal for day one? "To christen the new bed." Cut to Andrew swaying above the lens in some pub or nightclub. "One hundred and eighty cans of Stella between us. Biggest night of my life." Oh yeah, I thought. Then he'll fall over, puke on his suit, end up on his sickening tod, clutching a limp dick, with a fierce hangover. Next morning we discover that he is not alone in bed. A female leg is visible outside the duvet. And all of a sudden I had a terrible, Neanderthal desire to be reassured that the leg belonged to the ugliest woman in the North-west, and that Andrew would be regretting this day for the rest of his life. I have very rarely hated someone so much, so quickly, in my life before.
It took the Church of England to cheer me up. Or, rather, Ian Hislop's rather terrific modern history of it in Canterbury Tales (Channel 4, Thursday). This week he covered the period 1918 to 1945, and the Trollopian tales of the conservative Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, and his radical successor, William Temple.
There was good archive (which steered clear of Chamberlain's announcement of the declaration of war and Edward VIII's "woman I love"), nice testimony from a succession of ancient vicars and deacons ("He was a first-class snob. Oh dear, oh dear"), and a tight script from Hislop, who wisely decided against mugging for the camera, and let his humour speak in the voice- overs.
When describing how a bunch of blackshirts were bussed in to prevent bailiffs enforcing the unpopular tithe - and the Metropolitan police came and simply arrested them all - Hislop summed up the failure of political extremes to capture the nation during the heyday of the great "-isms". "This was England," he said. "Bees and mangel-wurzels may get thrown, but Fascists get arrested." And if we do have to talk sperm to strangers, we're suitably embarrassed.
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