Born To Be Different, Channel 4

by | Aug 9, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it

An impossibly poignant portrait of six children to whom God didn’t deal a fair hand of cards.

What to say of you didn’t like it

Documentaries about distressed and seriously ill children are just as cynically produced to draw in the viewers with simplistic, instinctive and hypnotic footage as some lazy ITV celebrity obsessed game show.

What was good about it?

• The educational element which lucidly, and with little hyperbole, delineated the ailment each child was suffering from. We learned about Tuberous Sclerosis, which William endured, which are lesions on the brain which cause epileptic fits. Emily had Spina Bifida, which literally means “split spine”. Shelbie was blighted by a chromosome disorder which meant that, when not in hospital, she needed a constant supply of oxygen. Nathan had Down’s Syndrome, which impeded his speech. Zoë has hands and feet that turn inwards. And Hamish struggled on with Dwarfism.

• The matter-of-fact manner in which both parents talked about their child’s disabilities. “All I do is break the bones…” a doctor blandly informs Hamish’s parents about an operation to give him a few extra inches in height.

• Also Paul Nicholls narrated in a similarly flat and composed tone, never letting the severity of any child’s plight distort his apposite monotone. “William has been confined to a small room with 37 probes attached to his head.”

• The searing empathy felt for the parents when the children were ever in gravely poor health. As William was admitted to the theatre to have one third of his brain removed to help ease his fits, his father Nick remarked: “I don’t think the corridors are going to be long enough to pace.”

• The horrid pain the children had to tolerate was utterly unpleasant and often unwatchable, but was effective in expressing the narrative of each tale. For instance, Emily had to have major surgery just hours after being born to help correct her Spina

Bifida, but since then has been able to lead a relatively normal life.

• Hamish’s father Nick using humour as a way of coping with his son’s Dwarfism. “He’ll have a final height of between 4’ and 4’ 2”. He won’t be able to reach the dirty magazines on the top shelf.” And: “Most people have to wait 30 years before they know their son isn’t going to be an international rugby player.” Of course, coming from someone else (or Ricky Gervais) such remarks would be offensive, but coming from a loving father they were simply touching.

What was bad about it?

• The sense that the viewer’s mood has been artificially manipulated by the editing and plaintive piano music. The clinical composition was wrought so a scene of happiness and tranquillity was almost always succeeded by some trauma. Perhaps for a less searing documentary such crass techniques may be necessitated but here they simply were merely gratuitous.

• Because of the varying degrees of disability, sometimes you start to feel that some of the complaints ostensibly aren’t that serious. For instance, since her operation soon after being born, Zoë is able to live a normal life except for her incontinence while Shelbie seems to be in a persistent battle just to stay alive. But later, you learn that

to remedy her problems Zoë will require surgery in which her bladder will be enlarged by affixing part of her bowel to it.

• When Shelbie is rushed to hospital the camera continues to film her mother Vicky outside as she shakes with worry about her daughter dying. This was perhaps too raw to be shown (and certainly wouldn’t have been had Shelbie died).

• The final ad break was offensive on two counts. Firstly, it came when Shelbie had just been admitted to hospital and appeared to be struggling for life. It was almost a case of aping those old Flash Gordon serials which conclude with a cliffhanger of Flash’s

rocket crashing into the deserts of Mongo. “How will he escape? Tune in next week to find out!” With Shelbie, the intimation was: “Can Shelbie pull through her latest trauma, or will the Grim Reaper pluck another sapling from the garden of humanity? Find out after the break!”

• And secondly, it featured a trailer for Big Brother which followed on afterwards. Never has Makosi’s drab selfishness been more abhorrent, “I think I’m going to be the last one out. I feel I’m going to be the last one out.”

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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