From the cradle to... not quite the grave, these documentaries on growing up and getting on are equally captivating
Two very different, yet equally satisfying, documentaries are exploring life and relationships on TV right now, from our earliest years to the decisions we make in our final ones. Both shows act as a timely reminder that when it comes to fly-on-the-wall views of growing up and getting on, the truth in all its warts-and-all exposure can be charming, sweet, sad, and honest.
On Channel 4, the first season of The Secret Lives of 4/5/6 Year Olds comes to an end this evening, with the second part of the older group’s exploits once again laid bare for the doting public to watch. Last time around, the motley crew of moppets showed us that the biggest different between four and six-year-olds is the acquisition of the ability to look adults in the eye and tell them porky pies about how the sweets left inside a canister ended up spread liberally across the floor – or inside their stomachs.
The documentary plays out like a version of Big Brother, except this time around his all-seeing eye is that of a Big Babysitter. The 10 boys and girls, a melting pot of race and socio-economic backgrounds, are presented with a mixture of tasks, but it is in their moments of free playing that their personalities – and influence over others – shine through.
Observing and ready to report are academics, Professor Paul Howard-Jones and Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, secreted in some room, passing comment on all of the decisions the children make and offering their take on how this tips the developmental scale. When one of the boys tries to canvass for votes to be elected leader, the boffins weigh in that the quieter approach of another boy is more likely to succeed – a hunch that is proven correct. At another point, they suggest that one of the girl’s decisions to play ‘kiss chase’ with the boys is a brokerage of power in her favour, and we watch as she slyly manipulates them – at least until one of them throws sand at her as a way of signalling his desire for a divorce.
University employees interacting with people is also the driving force behind the RTÉ One documentary A Parting Gift, though this time around the people in question are not quite as lively as the children tearing their way around the playground.
The two part series, a repeat broadcast after a run on the channel last year, examines the decision made by approximately 120 Irish people make every year to donate their body to one of the country’s medical schools for the purpose of scientific study.
Surrounded by a group of first-year medicine student in the anatomy theatre of Trinity College Dublin, the cadavers are treated with a near-holy reverence, shrouded in white clothes while lying on the cold and sterile tables. The students, many with uncomfortable looks upon their faces, are exposed to the site of preserved human flesh, all waxy and yellow, a shocking departure from the walking and talking people beside them.
Grabbing on to a scalpel, these trainee doctors perform their first ever incisions, peeling back the skin, some finding it grotesque, the others fascinating.
Where A Parting Gift makes the leap to essential viewing is when it turns its sights to the donor and the life he or she led in the lead up to their deaths. We hear from the sons of the mature student, whose graduation from Trinity in her 50s was a turning point in her life, handing over herself to the college as a nod to everything it gave her. We see grieving widows and widowers beaming with pride at good deed their loved one has done in the service of everyone else, and see them feel the sting of grief at the loss they feel when a wave overwhelms them.
A credit, too, goes to the two college employees, Siobhan Ward and Philomena McAteer, the self-billed ‘Shevil of the Bunker’, who deftly and professionally, but with incredibly pathos and patience, work to organise the body donation programme, and have done for nearly 40 years.
While The Secret Lives of 6 Year Olds is a charmingly disarming series of set-ups, the honest lives of those in A Parting Gift makes for an equally compelling look at the world around us.
Every Thursday, James talks Sean Moncrieff through what's making waves on the small screen this week. You can listen back to the podcast below: