Did the makers of When I Grow Up have no qualms turning a small boy into a hate figure?

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

Channel 4’s When I Grow Up had an important lesson for middle-class white males everywhere: you’re never too young to be held up as a git.

The series, billed as ‘a radical experiment in social mobility’, gets a group of seven- and eight-year-old children from different backgrounds to work together in a real-life office setting — which in Thursday’s first episode was, rather unexpectedly, Hello! magazine.

The editor-in-chief Rosie Nixon began by announcing, in the tones of one making a brave stance against prevailing social attitudes: ‘I do feel passionately about diversity.’ And this, of course, was also the brave stance taken by the programme itself and its on-hand experts, who included Faiza Shaheen, activist, prospective Labour candidate and all-round Jeremy Corbyn fan — although the programme captioned her simply as ‘economist’.

Faiza (PPE, St John’s College, Oxford) duly lamented the perniciousness of racial, gender and class-based privilege in British life. Yet, even with her on board, the programme left nothing to chance, carefully casting the children involved so as to reach its preordained conclusion.

In this process, Exhibit A was Charlie — from ‘affluent Berkshire’, as the narrator damningly informed us — whose obliging bumptiousness constantly conjured up images of the production team rubbing their hands with glee at having found him. (Luckily, if the thought ever crossed their minds that there was anything questionable about making a TV hate figure out of a small boy, they managed to suppress it.)

‘I’m good at teamwork,’ Charlie explained, ‘but I know how to take things over nicely when I need to’ — and, sure enough, he often needed to. The group’s first assignment was to host a batch of apparent celebrities at a Hello! theatre evening, where the team leader was supposed to be Samuel, a sweet and shy black child. But he was soon supplanted by Charlie who regaled the assembled willowy blondes with his plans to become ‘a singer, dancer, actor and model — a quadruple threat’.

Back in the office, Charlie also chose the photos of the evening for the magazine: something he found ‘pretty easy’, although this may have been because he mostly opted for photos of Charlie. And with that, he donned a hat of the kind that really should have had the word ‘Press’ sticking out of the hatband and brazenly took over a Myleene Klass fashion shoot from a sweet and shy northern child.

Meanwhile, playing the hero to Charlie’s villain was Isabella, who, noted the narrator sorrowfully, ‘lives in Middlesbrough’. Oddly, despite this tragic disadvantage, Isabella is a keen reader of Dickens and was easily clever enough to be made the overall editor of the children’s contributions. The way the programme told it (i.e. not entirely believably), she then pulled together a royal feature and the Myleene shoot without any adult interference. She was also genuinely impressive at restoring the morale of all the people Charlie offended.

She was so effective, in fact, that Charlie ended the episode distinctly chastened — or, if you prefer, successfully reprogrammed. ‘I’ve learned the importance of listening to other people,’ he recited, before leaving Isabella to complete the makers’ message. ‘I thought I couldn’t be the boss,’ she declared (even though this wasn’t particularly evident at the time), ‘but now I’ve realised I can.’

Fortunately, a more genial example of the current trend for shows about children from different backgrounds came with ITV’s Planet Child. The idea here is to explore ‘what it means to grow up in the 21st century’, now that ‘we’ve moved from the Stone Age to the Phone Age’ (a formulation the narrator was audibly proud of).

Wednesday’s programme began with a blizzard of statistics about the mollycoddling of British children. Nearly 90 per cent of primary school pupils are delivered to the school gates by adults. Three-quarters spend less time out of doors than the average prison inmate. But, as we learned, not all global parents are so weirdly anxious. In Tokyo, for instance, we watched a six-year-old making his way to school alone, by bus and very busy underground. So might it be that we’ve become a bit overprotective (and that the Pope isn’t a Protestant)?

To find out, presenters Chris and Xand van Tulleken came up with ‘a groundbreaking experiment’, which, perhaps anti-climactically, consisted of seeing if various primary-age siblings could catch a bus from the Imperial War Museum to the London Eye.

As it turned out, they could. Not only that, but they took obvious pleasure in doing something for themselves. Earlier in the episode, five-year-old Abi claimed the furthest she’d ever travelled without grown-ups was ‘a metre’. Now, with the aid of older brother Leo, she showed up at the London Eye with her eyes gleaming. ‘We were on our own!’ she said wonderingly. ‘I felt bigger than I am!’

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