08 October 2010


Something I never thought I'd say: BBC3 has some of the best programmes on television. Something I thought I'd never do: last night I watched BBC3 for two solid hours without wanting to exterminate all young people and all tv executives who think they have the attention span of a goldfish who's watched too much Friends.

The first programme was Are You Fitter Than A Pensioner? It's pretty formulaic and describing it makes it sound like the usual patronising tosh. Four young unfit Brits are taken to America where they spend a week in the company of elderly fitness freaks. At the end of the week, they must face the Americans in some sporting competition, and they come back having learned a lot about themselves.

But it works really well. The first shocking thing is how unfit some of the young people are. Last night one of the women, whose real age is 20, was assessed of having a "fitness age" of 75. (Actually the concept of "fitness age" is a bit debatable, but let's pass on that for now - these kids are seriously unfit.) The second shocking thing is how nice they turn out to be. Most frequently they start the show as sullen lumps of resentment, but under the carpet love-bombing of the Americans (who obviously treat them as the grandchildren they'd like to see more often) they blossom into confident, determined individuals. By the end of the week they maybe haven't learned that much about themselves, except how unfit they are in years, but they have learned to take some responsibility for themselves. They also seem to gain knowledge of and respect for older people. Altogether, thoroughly heart-warming.

After that, a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a strong contender for the title of the worst place in the world. Stacey Dooley, the presenter, apparently featured in an earlier BBC3 programme investigating third world clothes production, and the encounter with children in sweatshops turned her into a campaigner for children's rights. In DRC there's a UN-assisted programme to demobilise child soldiers - children who've been kidnapped by militias, and brainwashed and dehumanised into cheap killing machines. I wouldn't go to DRC in any circumstances, but I'm a chicken, and Stacey Dooley, though the fear is obvious at times in her very expressive face, isn't. She went to a camp where the rescued boys are given rehabilitation. Part of this is drawing pictures of what they've seen and done, and acting it out, using tree-branches rather than rifles. She mentioned the difficulty of being among this group of boys, who have all killed, and probably have all raped. There was the obligatory happy story, where we saw one boy taken back to his overjoyed family, but it couldn't dispel the overall impression that DRC is hell on earth.

But again, there's a heartwarming basis to the whole thing. Before she became involved in children's rights, Stacey Dooley was obsessed by fashion. We oldies might have considered her trivial and shallow. Somehow, though, she has found this enormous courage and compassion and put it to good use. She comes across as quite naive, looking younger than her 23 years, but that's her strength: her honest, unspun reaction to the horrors she sees and hears is powerful.

BBC3 is considered a youth channel, and I'm far too old to be watching it, but I don't recall any "grown-up" channel covering this issue. Next week, Stacey is going to Cambodia, to investigate child prostitution. Obviously, I'm a little bit in love with her. But watch it, and I defy you not to love her too.

(Incidentally, the law in DRC - hell on earth, remember - prevents anyone under 18 from becoming a soldier, in militia or the regular army. Frustrated 16-year-old Congolese boys needn't worry though. Come to Britain, where it's just fine to be a soldier at that age.)

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