Last Night's TV: Spoilt Rotten?, BBC1; V, Syfy

Sick of all the excuses

Rob Sharp
Wednesday 14 April 2010 00:00
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There are sometimes moments that depress you beyond all belief, that convince you – or confirm a pre-existing belief – that some quarters of British society are founded on fundamental ignorance, on fear of authority, on a reactionary selfishness that assumes, way beyond the normal distrust of politicians, that everyone else is out to get them. It's easy to cast aspersions against "such people", given that in all probability such levels of entrenched disillusionment are based on generations of neglect, of disenfranchisement, on a lack of social mobility. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating to watch.

One of the victims of such a situation is a 10-year-old, Marc, quizzed in last night's Panorama special, Spoilt Rotten?, by reporter Richard Bilton about his hearing. Several weeks before the interview, he had tiny tubes or grommets implanted in his ears to treat glue ear, a common affliction that affects children's hearing. Nurses had previously noted yellowing in his ears, which they attributed to the intense smoking habits of Marc's father. When put under scrutiny, Marc squirmed slightly, saying how his hearing comes and goes. He was clearly experiencing physical discomfort. Given the nurses' recommendations, it was hard to understand why Marc's father didn't immediately quit. Bilton moved over to grill the father in his armchair, where he sat alongside a dirty ashtray, which was spilling over with ash. "The doctors are like the government," he said. "They tell you what to do and when to do it. If they don't like something, they say it is bad for you." He said he wouldn't stop smoking until doctors handed him conclusive proof that his behaviour was affecting his son's health. Between 500 and 1,000 children a year end up in hospital because they are exposed to their parents' smoking.

Marc was just one of thousands of the young people receiving treatment at Liverpool's Alder Hey hospital, where up to £1m a year is spent on preventable diseases, problems like obesity, tooth decay, alcohol abuse, and the illnesses caused by passive smoking. What's more, the hospital's authorities think things are getting worse. "People are starting to say maybe this is a generation where children will be dying before their parents," said the hospital's medical director, Steve Ryan.

Often, as was the programme's conclusion, these problems can come about with parents loving their children "too much". That seemed to be Bilton's conclusion when analysing the case of five-year-old Leon, who has the weight of your average 17-year-old. Leon played in the examination room of one of Alder Hey's consultants, Mohammed Didi, who patiently explained to Leon that he should be active like the Buzz Lightyear toy that he was busy propelling around the room.

When Bilton followed Leon home, his mother was shown pushing him around in a wheelchair, meaning he wasn't getting sufficient exercise. She was fiercely protective of the way she was bringing up her son. Leon threw a tantrum, so she gave him a small piece of cake. She followed this up with Weetabix and fruit, then a vegetable-heavy meal, just in the two-hour period that Bilton was present. She could not understand why feeding him lots of healthy food could make him unhealthy, and took gross offence when she was challenged on it.

At least she was trying. Macaulay, 13, was drinking a bottle of vodka a week and had an Asbo. He was admitted to Alder Hey once because he drank what he claimed was four bottles of wine in one evening. His mother, Kelly, was filmed driving around Liverpool trying to find him, but didn't seem all that concerned. She joked and bummed a light off a local boy who said he was going to run off and break his own Asbo. When Macaulay was asked where he got the money for drink from, he blamed his mother. When the cameras returned several weeks later, Macaulay claimed his funds had been cut off, though the viewer was left unconvinced that he'd remain off the booze (again, many of the Friday nights of the A&E unit at Alder Hey are spent dealing with drunk teenagers when the time would better be spent elsewhere).

All of this was indeed wearing, and a miserable portrait of Britain, but you couldn't help feeling that the underlining causes of these problems – a lack of education, the potential intervention of social services, especially in the case of Marc – were not properly addressed. You were left wanting to know more about these stories, and how they were being repeated across Britain. What can be done about it? Anything? What is equally misery-making is that at a point when the budgets of all public services are feeling the squeeze, preventable diseases are areas in which the public could truly help themselves.

On a lighter note, SyFy's new Independence Day-style series, V, a remake of a programme that originally appeared in the 1980s, has more sci-fi clichés in its first 10 minutes than most of the last 10 years put together. It's the story of a good-looking alien race that arrives on Earth hoping to share its technology, and has been read in some circles as an allegory for Obama-mania, in the sounds-too-good-to-be-true style. In truth, the acting is far too hammy to tackle anything that sophisticated.

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