Fathers figured and a dashing doctor

The fatherless child, in societies where two-parent families are still the norm, grows up with a mystery inside. What is being fathered like? What is the experience, both immediate and lasting, of male intimacy of this kind? It is, of course, substantially up to oneself what is made thereafter of adult life: fatherlessness is no ticket-of-leave from responsibility and the business of maturing. But it’s laming, even if one who is lame must have a go at limping through life.

Nearly half of fathers who leave, or are left by, their children’s mothers lose touch with their son or daughter either at once or over the next few years. Some of these men will think, if they think at all, “I’m well out of that.” Or half-guiltily, half with relief, they’ll say to themselves, “They’re better off without me.” But many, maybe most, wish to be a father even if they cannot be a husband or partner.

Who Needs Fathers? (BBC2 Wednesdays) is not so much about such yearning fathers as it is dedicated to them. For a documentary programme in such a contested area, it’s surprisingly committed to the view that fathers, generally, get a raw deal both from their children’s mothers and from the family courts, which regulate the terms of separation, access and money. In its first episode, it showed two contrasting families: the first, with four young sons and two well-off parents, in which the father spent years and many thousands of pounds on enforcing agreed access to them. The second set of parents, who had a boy and a girl, were not as financially comfortable but had worked out a sharing arrangement that survived despite a money crisis and the need to sell their separate homes and move down the property ladder.

Last week’s episodes showed three fathers – one whose daughter was the result of “a fling” but was determined to be a father to her; one whose wife had left him; a third whose split and efforts to retain access had unleashed a flood of apparently baseless accusations of violence and child abuse from his former wife.

In every case, the mothers had violated the terms of the access orders and three declined to take part in the documentary: the programmes nudged you to the conclusion that their modesty was the result of not wishing to show a bad hand. The exception, the financially constrained couple, was inspiring in its revelation of two people working hard to suppress bitterness and to provide stability for the children. Ironically, given the discussion elsewhere of black fathers deserting pregnant partners, this was the only non-white couple – the man, Chris, observing at one point that “we had a West Indian upbringing in which family is incredibly important.” More than one stereotype is challenged in this careful, intimate series.

Outnumbered (BBC1 Thursdays), which returned for its third series, has a fictional family assembled so we can enjoy the children’s wit. This comedy’s success relies on the partly improvised dialogue derived from the interaction of the three children and their screen parents in various situations: in last week’s episode, a trip round London with dad Pete’s mother in tow. The youngest, Karen (Ramona Marquez), nine, is the star, her dialogue pursuing paths of childish logic to which Pete (Hugh Dennis) reacts with probably real bafflement. In previous series the adults had more of the screen; here they are pulled into the background more as feeds for the self-confident kids, no doubt ruminating on the phrase attributed to WC Fields, “Never act with children or animals”.

Two other renewals last week. In series 32 of Doctor Who (BBC1 Saturdays), with a new Doctor, the comely Matt Smith, and his new and equally comely assistant Amelia (Karen Gillan), the Doctor at one point undresses completely to change to a better set of clothes. Amelia watches admiringly, a half-century’s cry from the first Time Lord’s companion – his granddaughter. The Doctor has 20 minutes to save the world from incineration, and does. The series follows the growing trend to be topical/satiric: the aliens, the Atraxi, are invoked, a kind of interstellar United Nations with respect and real power, and asked, “Is this world [Earth] a threat?” No, says the Atraxi voice with an interstellar echo – and there you have a 10-second satire of the invasion of Iraq. At another point, the Doctor persuades Amelia to be his assistant by saying, “You’re a Scottish girl in an English village: I know what that’s like,” as if she were a Jew who had wandered into a 19th-century Cossack settlement. Such silliness.

What keeps you going through that, and some simply incomprehensible parts, is the old-fashioned cliff-hanging plot. The same is true of another piece of televisual magical realism, back for a third series. Ashes to Ashes (BBC1 Fridays) is, however, sillier and more rebarbative than Doctor Who. Its central conceit – that a contemporary woman police inspector, Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), is projected back to the early 1980s and a murder squad led by Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) – depends on a paper-thin pretence that this may be real or it may be all in her mind. Its attraction is the clash between modern notions of respect and the comically archaic attitudes of three decades ago; it is also a tyre-squealing, cliff-hanging police procedural. Magical realism, by one definition, uses magical elements to deepen one’s understanding of reality: this uses the inexplicable to fancify the unremarkable.

john.lloyd@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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