Terence Blacker: The showbiz face of modern nannyism

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The Independent Online

In an unguarded moment, I found myself this week listening to a man confessing, or rather boasting, that his wife breastfed him. I blame myself (it was Channel 4, this is 2006, what else could I expect?), but the shock and nausea were such that it took several seconds before I could switch over to a decent programme - the Reality Channel's excellent adultery show Cheaters.

I shall now probably never know whether this lactation fetishist was actually filmed going head-to-head with his infant son in a suckling situation, but I have no doubt as to how showing such weirdness on TV will be justified. It is not prurient or a freak show at all, we shall be told. It's educational.

In this area, at least, the entertainment industry is at one with the Government. The general public, it has been decided, are hopeless at running their lives. They need help from the experts. Schools should have citizenship lessons, teenagers should be trained in parenting skills. TV plays its part in the guidance game. Before ordinary people even think of decorating their home, or redesigning their garden, there will be a Llewelyn-Bowen or a Titchmarsh on screen to show them how.

Ever eager to help us in our daily lives, television producers have now moved from the practical to the emotional, becoming in the process the showbiz face of the new nannyism. The domestic makeover show, which had become a distinctly tired format, has now moved to marriage and parenthood itself, sending wise, caring presenters into the kitchen, the nursery and, of course, the bedroom.

In time-honoured fashion, these programmes offer the possibility, or at least the illusion, of self-improvement and moral seriousness, but are usually an excuse for a peep into the dark, embarrassing recesses of family life. Few things are as compelling as watching ordinary people making a mess of things and, such is the sinister seductiveness of the camera, there is no shortage of those prepared to expose their family to the public gaze.

Yet perhaps the nanny faction is right, and many of us are in dire need of emotional guidance. To judge by what has emerged this week from the debate surrounding the high-profile and high-finance divorce cases being considered in the House of Lords, there has never been quite as much confusion and conflict over what is expected and delivered by the institution of marriage.

For some, it seems, it is a meal-ticket for life, with the promise of a decent payout if it goes wrong. For others, it is a sort of fairy-tale which dissolves with the first hint of boredom or disagreement. Children are endlessly discussed, yet probably in these self-obsessed times get a worse deal than ever. On the Today programme, Christine Odone coolly suggested that it was a business partnership.

For too long, the Government and TV producers have been skirting around the fringes of modern marriage, fretting about how to mend it when it is broken. We need a debate about modern marriage, perhaps a government initiative spearheaded by Patricia Hewitt or Margaret Hodge.

In the meantime, a reality show should send experts into marriages in their early years, when the fatal seeds of future unhappiness tend to be sown, and then, in the manner of Michael Apted's Seven Up series, return on a regular basis. It would be car-crash TV all right, but of a very superior type.

No sex, please, we're the New Tories

At last a politician has stepped forward who is prepared to make a real sacrifice for family values. Silvio Berlusconi has announced that his opposition to gay marriage is so strong that he will not be having sex with his wife until the Italian election in April.

Some may wonder what a promise of "two and a half months of complete sexual abstinence" has to do with anything, but that is to miss the point. What the silly old right-winger is trying to say is that, even at 69, he is still a pistol between the sheets.

Sexual exhibitionism is playing an increasingly important part in politics. The Labour Party has five-times-a-night Tony, while the Liberals are, in this as in other areas, eager but confused. But what of the New Tories? Surely we need some indication of the potency of the fellow who has just been voted the 92nd sexiest man in the world. David Cameron's supporters expect a report from the boudoir in the near future.

* It is good news that the full force of law is to be brought down upon pet owners. For too long now, nasty children have been allowed to prod guinea pigs, the barbaric trade in caged birds has been unchecked while goldfish are kept in tiny bowls, a practice banned in parts of that more humane country, Italy.

Under the Animal Welfare Act, domestic animals will be given a kind of constitution, which will be enforced by squadrons of pet police, working for local councils.

The plan to ban the docking of dogs' tails is more controversial. There were "terrible animal welfare implications" according to a spokesman for that well-known welfare body, the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, while the Council of Docked Breeds, which is presumably in permanent emergency session at the moment, has said that "some people will simply stop breeding".

The tails, of course, should stay. Like many men of my generation, I feel strongly that no creature should have an important part of its anatomy snipped shortly after it has been born.

terblacker@aol.com

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