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Tony and Barrie: the queens of family life

C4’s film about the world’s first gay parents was both thought-provoking and tacky at the same time.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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‘Happy families are all alike’, goes the famous opening of Anna Karenina, ‘each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Count Tolstoy was never wrong about suffering, but he might have had to reconsider his views on the uniformity of domestic contentment if he had met the Drewitt-Barlow clan, stars of this week’s Channel 4 documentary My Weird and Wonderful Family.

A decade ago, Tony Barlow and Barrie Drewitt provoked a media storm by becoming the world’s first gay parents, using their sperm, donor eggs and a surrogate mother to father Saffron and Aspen. Four years later, they used the split egg used to conceive Aspen to father Orlando, who is therefore his older brother’s identical twin and – fans of comedian Peter Cook take note – made Aspen, for the first four years of his life, an only twin. The producers of My Weird and Wonderful Family caught up with the couple as they attempted to sire another set of twins, chosen from a donor catalogue on the internet.

So, a whole lot of complex ethical and philosophical issues to unpack in the space of one hour then. Extra spice was added by the fact that Tony and Barrie aren’t the sort of grey-flannel, mild-mannered homosexuals who are keen quietly to make statements on behalf of gay men everywhere. No, they are great, big flaming queer cosmetics millionaires who spend vast sums of money on ridiculously gaudy fashion items, live in a mansion in Essex and probably have rude pictures of themselves posted all over the internet. Proper ballsy gays, as playwright Simon Gray once put it. Even better, Barrie possesses the kind of Northern campness normally reserved for chain-smoking drag queens and tarts with a heart. Watching him, it felt like somebody had inseminated the egg of Footballer’s Wives with the seed of Gattaca‘s sci-fi futurism, and then implanted it in the womb of Coronation Street.

It was, of course, utterly magnificent telly and perfectly suited to the style of a prurient Channel 4 documentary. If this was drama, however, then the producers would likely be denounced for the film’s outrageous implausibility and receive angry letters from Stonewall about its rampant homophobia.

As the UK’s once leading ‘edgy’ liberal broadcaster, Channel 4 loves to style its documentaries as provocations to conservative, Daily Mail-reading Middle England. For instance, the channel recently ran a series of programmes exploring the history of immigration to the UK entitled Bloody Foreigners. Geddit? It was ironic, because tolerant, middle-class Channel 4 viewers actually like immigrants – as long as they have useful skills, provide economic value and set a good example to Britain’s feckless poor.

Yet the questions of designer babies and genetic engineering were not so easy to sloganeer around: here were gays having kids (which gets a big tick because Channel 4 types like to be reminded of how tolerant they are), but it also raises difficult questions about the value of human life and the importance of moral values.

If there’s one thing Channel 4 viewers can agree on, it’s that consumerism and being filthy rich is tacky, vulgar and probably bad for the planet. And, my God, Tony and Barrie were nothing if not vulgar. The undoubted star of the show was Barrie, who insisted that his children be born by caesarean section, because the act of human birth was ‘like something out of Freddy Krueger’, and that the mother have no contact with his kids. When asked how they chose their donors, Barry said: ‘We originally went for a combination of looks and intelligence’, before looking pointedly at his slightly chubby daughter and adding, ‘but this time we’ll go for looks alone’. At the school Christmas party, he stole the part of the Fairy Godmother from one of the kids, and felt up the headmaster. Barrie is a gaudy monster plucked from the dark recesses of a Tennessee Williams play, as acted by Lily Savage or Bette Davis.

Yet there’s no law against fucking your kids up, and if one truly supports the right of childless couples – whatever their gender – to conceive through unnatural means, then they should have the freedom to be as rotten parents as everyone else. Of course, what this programme really resembled was the kind of curtain-twitching judgement of others’ family lives so beloved of other Channel 4 staples, such as Jamie’s School Dinners or Wife Swap.

spiked has regularly criticised this contemporary obsession with parenting: the conviction that not playing with your offspring for the right number of hours a day or feeding them from a bottle and not a breast will actually screw up children beyond repair. When placed against such impossible standards, virtually no family would come through unscathed under the cold glare of the judgemental TV lens – let alone one simultaneously pushing the limits of taste and human identity like Tony and Barrie.

Indeed, one need only venture across to My New Stepfamily on BBC3 this week to see that fact well illustrated by former England footballer turned TV presenter Gary ‘Mr Nice Guy’ Lineker. Not only did Lineker leave his wife to shack up with an underwear model, but he also managed, through some dark art, to create a clone of himself as an 18-year-old, which he named, in a fit of evident megalomania, ‘Gary Junior’.

More prosaically, the chaos and guilt of modern family life have been expertly and hilariously covered by the great BBC1 comedy Outnumbered. And it was that undoubtedly loving family that the Drewitt-Barlows ultimately reminds you of. While Barrie got on with the business of violating just about any boundary or rule of modern parenting, Tony (‘Dad’) sat quietly in the background, doing the chores and being a parent. The kids are absolute darlings, if unspeakably spoilt (Saffron got a pony for her tenth birthday) and agonisingly precocious (six-year-old Orlando seems to know more about DNA than your average science undergraduate).

Even Barrie had his moments, in his own delightful way: telling Aspen that he shouldn’t be teased over his parents’ sexuality by the ‘gayest kid in school’ and announcing his plans to share the frozen leftover embryos with other wannabe parents. He clearly loves his kids and even took time to lecture Tony for feeding them junk food while he was away. With behaviour like that, Barrie might get on quite well with this modern parenting lark, after all.

Of course, the lingering question of the programme – as asked by Eamonn ‘Fatboy’ Holmes on GMTV on behalf of the nation all those years ago – was: deprived of a mother’s love, will the kids grow up to be impossibly messed-up homosexuals? Orlando seemed to be quite keen on the idea, but then he also pointed out that if his two dads hadn’t given life to him in their unorthodox way he ‘probably would be a crocodile’. Orlando, Aspen, Saffron and all will probably grow up to have all the problems and issues everyone’s expected to have in this day and age. But they’ll have one saving grace: designer or not, they’re human like the rest of us.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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