Media adulation can quickly turn sour

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If Mandy Allwood's babies are born alive and well they will be the first octuplets in recent years to survive, and the biggest multiple birth in Britain to date, writes Glenda Cooper.

The record before that was set in 1987, when seven test-tube babies were born to Susan Halton in Liverpool, but the four boys and three girls all died.

At present there are three pairs of sextuplets surviving in Britain and six world-wide. The best known are the Walton sextuplets, who were born on 18 November 1983. Their mother, Jan, had been taking fertility drugs but the chances of having six girls were 104 billion to one. Hannah, Lucy, Ruth, Sarah, Kate and Jenny, who arrived within four minutes of each other, are the only sextuplets of the same sex in the world.

The Waltons' agent, Phillip Ettinger, who also managed Britain's two other sextuplets, negotiated lucrative deals for the family. A property developer gave them a four-bedroom showhouse in exchange for their own; the babies were given free food for a year and one firm supplied high chairs, buggies and carrycots.

Ford lent them an estate car and another company agreed to supply each of the girls with free shoes for 12 years.

On the girls' second birthday a photograph by Lord Lichfield was reproduced worldwide. Mr Ettinger also managed a contract for the production of a yearly television documentary about them.

The parents, Janet and Graham, said that the publicity surrounding the children has never made them rich and that they "could have done more".

The Waltons overshadowed Britain's second set of sextuplets, who were born in 1986 - three boys and three girls to Susan, the wife of a London policeman, Graham Coleman.

But perhaps the most dramatic case was that of the Vince sextuplets, from Grimsby, in Humberside. The five girls and a boy were born in a blaze of publicity in 1993 after doctors advised Jean Vince to have a selective abortion. She refused and Rebecca , Katie, Stephanie, Jessica, Valerie and Gregory were born on 19 May. Praise for her bravery and for the doctors who looked after her swiftly dissolved however when it was discovered that the proud parents did not live together, that Mr Vince already had four children and that the state was likely to have to pick up a bill of pounds 112,000 a year for their care.

Interviews with Mr Vince's former wife, who claimed he had not seen her three children for eight years, fuelled the controversy and MPs and churchmen called for more stringent criteria for those seeking expensive fertility treatment.

Media adulation turned to backlash and lucrative sponsorship deals from nappy companies and baby-food commercials melted away. At the sextuplets' third birthday party earlier this year, Jean Vince said the family was so hard- up that she had to buy shoes for the children at car-boot sales. "It's the only way we can make ends meet," she said. A cautionary tale.