Born To Be Different
Thursday 14 March, Ch4, 9pm
It has been 13 years since the thumping tones of the Big Brother soundtrack barged their way onto TV listings and the game changed forever. The ‘realness’ of the original reality formats was both their strength and their downfall, with thousands heralding the dawn of a new democratic TV era and others bemoaning the impulse to watch normal people eat, sleep, fart and fight.
Since that day, we have come to understand ‘reality TV’ as something else; something glossy, featuring lives that conform to neat story arcs and life crises that fit nicely within a half hour slot.
But breaking the mould of the ‘Teenies’ approach to reality TV comes a welcome blast from a slightly more dishevelled past. Born To Be Different is now celebrating its tenth birthday and is a programme with an altogether more ‘real’ approach to reality. Originally created as a one-off, the programme follows the lives of a number of families coping with the stresses, strains, joys and pains of living with a disabled child. Now in its seventh series and claiming the title of Channel 4s longest standing biopic, we catch up with the children at the tough age of 13.
‘What are you looking at? I’m just a normal person’, says the most mature 13-year-old you are ever likely to have come across. Zoe is, in fact, referring to her response to the jibes that follow her across the playground at school. She suffers from arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder that affects multiple joints in the body, making even walking a challenge on ‘bad days’. ‘It’s understandable’, she adds, sympathising with her immature peers.
But her original question takes on different significance for a viewing audience faced with yet another programme chronicling lives alien to most. Born To Be Different feels as though it just about comes down on the right side of things, paying careful attention not to draw its own conclusions about the astonishing physical and/or social impediments facing these children and instead focussing on their own approach to their condition. The temptation to overlay any piece of upbeat footage with the poignant droning of violin is resisted in favour of a genuine glimpse at the light and dark of these families’ lives.
‘I just want to do the right thing for him’, comments one mother, Paula, currently grappling with the decision of whether to send her son to residential school in order to allow her family a more regular life. William suffers from complex epilepsy and is growing more exhausting for his Paula, who suffers from MS, by the day. This is a plea surely uttered by every loving parent, but it must be felt with a particular intensity when part of the reason for wanting to send your son away is for the sake of the rest of your family.
Similarly impossible decisions are being faced by the parents of Shelby. Her condition is growing worse by the hour. Shelby’s mother is facing up to the reality that her bright, resilient child may be slipping away and the doctors are beginning to advise that they have done all they can do. The devastating reality of regular trips to hospital and constant worry that a minor illness could take their child away at any time could never adequately be portrayed by a one-hour documentary, but seeing the intense love with which all the children in this programme are enveloped gives an even sharper stick with which to poke you when something goes wrong.
Aside from a celebration of each individual child in this ten-year series comes the acknowledgement of how tough things can get, and it is the filmmaker’s ability to see each with equal importance that makes Born To Be Different, well…different.