The Way We Live Now
I was a little annoyed with Joan Bakewell for writing pretty much what I was going to say here about 'Wife Swap'. If I hadn't read her article in The Guardian I could have been accused of plagiarism. But I suppose I should be flattered at sharing an opinion with such an icon of the Sixties intelligentsia.
She rightly says that this particular reality show is "pure social anthropology". Some other examples of the genre are pure voyeurism, like the new 'What the Butler Saw' although that is undeniably entertaining and features a rather camp Under Butler. Is that his position of choice, one can't help wondering. But Wife Swap is going to be a goldmine for future social historians and social scientists.
Joan picks up on the fact that so many people in the series seem to be married to exactly the right person and marvels at the miracle that this should have come about. This particular insight hadn't struck me, perhaps because heterosexual attraction is a mystery in itself. 'Mixed sex marriages never work', a friend of mine used to say. But clearly many do and often the most unlikely ones. Joan is too kind to mention that the viewer often feels that they wouldn't share a nest with either partner if they were the only life form in the Milky Way. I'm not, so I will.
Two things have amazed me about this series. The first is what a fragmented society we have become and it's no longer just class-based. When, as a child, I visited friends' houses I was struck by small differences but they lived broadly similar lives to my own family. Today there are startlingly different lifestyles and values within the same social class.
The second shock has been how many fathers, of all classes, totally ignore their children, sometimes to a degree that could be called emotional cruelty. I couldn't help reflecting on the contrast with the two gay men who had children by a surrogate mother and have been featured in documentaries. For them, the children were at the centre of their lives although threats and abuse (some from Christians) have forced them to move abroad. Of course, I'm not suggesting that as a general rule gay men would make better parents. That would be absurd. I just hadn't realised that so many straight men could be so selfish and unloving towards their offspring.