TV UK, 8 January

Lord Winston's cowboy child psychology.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Tradesmen From Hell (ITV1 on Tuesday night) gave me an idea. The programme provided a handy Top Five guide to the tricks played by dodgy plumbers and builders, etc. So here are the Top Five TV scams.

5. Ripping off footage from viewers. The You’ve Been Framed budget strategy.

4. Ripping off footage from other programmes. The I Love… and Top Ten (ahem) programmes are especially keen on this one, but it’s surprisingly common.

3. Ripping off tried and tested formats. This one’s massive. And it isn’t important that these formats are any good, just that they’ve been done before and look sort of professional.

2. Passing off light entertainment as serious sociological or scientific investigation. The first series of Big Brother was known for this, but more importantly it is true of a good proportion of allegedly serious programming.

1. Inventing spurious problems to be exposed and debated interminably. A staple of current affairs and documentary, this one goes to the core of the contemporary broadcasting mentality.

Tradesmen From Hell used all five of these, but the downmarket nature of the programme meant that the top two were never going to be done that convincingly. For a really good example of these, see Child of Our Time (BBC1, Tuesdays at 9pm). Presenter Lord Winston is well respected as a reproductive scientist, even if he is a bit of a media tart (‘have white coat, will travel’), but now he seems to have sold his soul to the Fish Marketing Board (more later).

Child of Our Time is actually quite entertaining if you look at it as a sort of upmarket version of Kids Say The Funniest Things. This week’s episode was supposed to be about early socialisation, and how kids acquire the skills they need to make friends. I was particularly taken with two kids. First the little boy who dutifully thanked the researchers for a present, even on discovering it was half a plastic egg – thereby impressing them with his ability to fake responses, while leaving viewers in no doubt that he was gutted.

Then there was the little girl who chose one sweetie now, rather than five after waiting a minute. Conventional wisdom has it that this is bad, revealing an inability to defer gratification. But leaving aside the question of whether child development researchers are to be trusted, conventional wisdom makes rash assumptions about the value of sweeties. That little girl is to be commended for refusing to play the game.

Not content with cooing over the cute kids, though, Winston insisted on seeing pathology in every curled lip and hooded glance. After a bit of casual parent bashing, he identified television as a cause of undersocialisation and violence, and prescribed fish oil as a miracle cure. The former was based on some dubious research involving a video showing a man first kissing and then beating up an inflatable doll that sprung back up after it had been punched. Surprise, surprise, when presented with an identical doll, kids copied the man’s behaviour, taking particular relish in the violence.

Never mind that beating up a blow-up doll is incredibly good fun for a three-year-old, and that all the other social cues were to get stuck in, the idea that TV causes violence is an old favourite that refuses to go away, and so Winston was happy to accept a level of evidence one hopes he would never take seriously in his real job. The same goes for the fish thing. Yes, we all know that fish is brain food, but the fact that a troublesome kid’s behaviour seems to have improved after taking fish oil for a few weeks is no more than anecdotal evidence, reminiscent of the MMR drama Hear the Silence.

Child of Our Time is all good fun, but a serious investigation of child development and the relationship between nature and nurture? You’ve ‘ad cowboys in, Missus.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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