Child of Our Time review: excellent TV – with one serious misjudgment

Four years on in Robert Winston’s fascinating documentary and the children have undergone massive transformations. But it’s not all good news

Ah yes, Child of Our Time (BBC1), the documentary that tracks the development of 25 British children born in the year 2000. It’s like the brilliant Up series, but with Robert Winston, and science, and the big nature/nurture question, to give it an extra element. Slide the kids into a big brain scanner, check out what’s going on in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex.

It’s four years since we last saw this lot, and fuelled by powerful hormones, they have undergone massive transformation. Like if people you know with kids go and live abroad for a few years and then come home: hello, hello … and oh my god, who’s this?

Shy Matt, who wouldn’t let go of his dad’s hand, or leave his room, remember? Now he’s not-shy Matt: jumping off mountains, paddling down fearsome rivers, surfing crowds and waves of testosterone.

Being 16 isn’t just about pleasure, though, I remember. It’s about becoming self-conscious. And more so today, in a world obsessed with selfies which are then judged by everyone; it’s hardly surprising that today’s teenagers are extra-preoccupied by how they look.

But it’s not all boo to the present day and present-day tech. Eve, who came out to her evangelical Christian dad (he was totally cool about it, and possibly not totally surprised), uses social media to connect with other gay teenagers. It’s a lifeline she wouldn’t have had before. Perhaps that’s partly why the average age for telling family and friends you’re gay (25, just a generation ago) is now 16. That’s amazing isn’t it, and brilliant? The 21st century, it’s fantastic! Overall, the message coming out of this is a positive one, that it might be hard, but it’s also going to turn out all right. I’m in some way reassured. I have a couple of children who will become teenagers at some point. Which, though terrifying, is also something to look forward to.

Winston clearly thinks it’s grand to be 16. “The exciting cocktail of sex hormones, and a brain stimulated by thrills, means they’re irresistibly drawn to love, sex and other temptations,” he says gleefully. Today’s teens are better informed, more sensible, actually more adult about sex than their parents were. Chances are that Charlie, who has got a boyfriend, might procreate later than her mum Toni, who had her at 16.

In South Wales, Megan is no longer a sheep-wrestling tomboy, she’s now very much a young woman, one hand clutching a bottle of sparkling rose and the other in the air at her Gatsby-themed birthday party that she organised herself, in the barn of the family farm. Megan seems to be confident and very sorted.

In Yorkshire, Rhianna’s pessimism came from the tension at home. But now she expresses her cynicism of the world through her songs. So beautifully – Rhianna is “from discord, find harmony” in human form. Now I’m worrying that there’s too much stability in my children’s lives. Did great art ever come from stability at home? Who cares if they are happy or not, I want them to be amazing … I suppose the danger is that they’re not destined to be creative geniuses (very little sign of it so far, to be honest), and then they would just be sad. Maybe I won’t walk out just yet.

Anyway, Rhianna is amazing. They all are, in their own different ways. Has Child of Our Time accidentally all become good news? Wait though, what about Jamie? The mood, and the music, has suddenly become more sombre. Jamie, who had type 2 diabetes, was easily led, and he fell in with a bad lot. One night he didn’t come home … Oh God no, why is the camera focusing on a framed photo of him, which mum Sharon takes off the shelf to dust, has something terrible happened? No. There was an incident, Jamie was in a diabetic coma, now he’s fine. In fact, it was a wake-up call and a turning point. Now Jamie’s got a job as a chef, and his own moped (even if some parents might not see that the latter was necessarily great news).

That’s mean isn’t it, and irresponsible, and misjudged of the makers? He’s dead (that’s what I was thinking) … not really, only kidding, April fool! I’m happy to be messed with a bit as a viewer, but not about something like the life of a child.

Otherwise Child of Our Time is excellent television. Because of the scale and the ambition of the project. Because Robert Winston and now child psychologist Tanya Byron make it brainy, literally; the science is really interesting. But mostly because it’s the story of children growing up, and you don’t get much more moving, or human, or important than that.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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