I caught up late with Panorama's programme about surrogacy on Monday night, which in this case is a reviewer's euphemism for the fact that I watched it at the same time as everyone else did. I didn't intend to review it and when I tuned in to take its pulse for a few minutes I had no real intention of watching to the end. I did, despite a rhythmic groan of dismay about every five minutes, prompted equally by the shameless untrustworthiness of both parties involved in the original story and the shameless manipulation of this telling of it. I moaned particularly loudly when Martin Bashir included a high-minded passage about "rival journalists" scrambling "to get a slice of the unfolding story", because his film was a perfect example of the increasingly tabloid ambitions of the series. The film told the miserable tale of a surrogacy agreement between Karen Roche, a Yorkshire midwife, and the Peters, a Dutch couple desperate for a child - an arrangement which very soon disintegrated into a mess of mutual loathing and accusations. She told them she had aborted the child (she hadn't); they attacked her as evil in The Mirror. She came to a financial arrangement with another couple to take the baby; they behaved in ways (never quite specified) that made their early defenders dismiss them contemptuously as "liars".
Panorama's position in this battle was ostensibly one of principled detachment; Bashir put disapproving questions to all sides and to Kim Cotton, who runs the voluntary organisation which assisted in making the surrogacy arrangement. But there was also evidence of a complicity with both parties in order to secure more dramatic material; Mr Peters, for example, was filmed having a telephone row with one of the members of the surrogacy agency, a conversation that was relayed by speaker-phone so we could all eavesdrop. Presumably the woman on the other end was unaware that she was being recorded; presumably too Mr Peters' shock and consternation at her manner were not quite as spontaneous as he made it appear. (If they didn't suspect there would be a flare-up why go to the trouble to record the conversation this way in the first place? He and his wife had to be carefully positioned so that the camera could catch both reactions.)
Karen Roche too might have had good reason to think that the production team were going to take her side in the final film. Two questions in particular arose about the way in which her version had been represented. First, was there any medical reason for her to have an ultrasound scan so close to the birth - or was it so that Panorama could get a striking tableau of familial excitement - something to show besides the bump? Second, how many takes were required to secure the sequence in which the Roche children cuddled their half brother and sang a song of thanks to God for his arrival - a masterpiece of kitsch of which any tabloid would have been proud? I ended up feeling that I couldn't trust anyone involved - on either side of the camera.
It's a bit early to say whether Underworld (C4) will quite come off, but it definitely deserves a second viewing before the verdict is passed. Some of it is blackly flippant in its manner and language - Alun Armstrong's urbane auto-didact gangster, for instance, who always insists that his thugs apologise to the people they have strong-armed and whose hydrangeas owe their splendour to the presence of Frankie "Fat Man" Mackenzie in the root ball. But occasionally the sardonic comedy is broken by a sudden gulp of real emotion - as in a touching scene in which Susan Fleetwood finds out that her ex-husband is having a baby with his new partner by listening to someone else's answering machine. There's a solid quality to these wobbles of feeling which reassures you that they are all part of the original design.Reuse content