ii-ow many times, my son? -11 When a priest asks this scathingly personal question, never mind that it is in the confessional, he is intruding into someone's privacy. That person has, of course, invited intrusion. But as likely as not he has got more than he bargained for.
A very similar situation occurs quite frequently in television. Someone agrees to be interviewed on a personal matter before long they have told the world what they wouldn't have told their best friend: when the programme is over, offended viewers telephone by the dozen.
I have recently been watching a short series of arch-examples of the probing personal interview, Generations Apart, three programmes shown at a late hour on successive Saturdays on BBC-1. In one a 16-years-old girl openly admitted to promiscuity and probably to pot, in another a boy made up his mind in public to leave home, in a third a girl broke down and wept on camera.
Intrusion! Beastliness! Bah! Yet I believe these programmes were always good and sometimes excellent, and, more, that they were for good as well. For one thing on a scale which only television could achieve, they must have pricked the sluggish minds of thousands of parents into thinking about their on-theedge of adulthood children (they would have affected millions had they been shown, as they deserved. in prime time).
And for another thing they Were three small paeans in praise of frankness, and almost always frankness is a highly desirable quality. The gap between parents and children is made up often of nothing more than an utterly insubstantial inability to speak out. If these three examples of frankness on matters often left, through fear on either side of a dense wall, have shown anybody that speaking out is possible, then they may have been justified for this alone.
They did their good, however, at the cost of in trusion into places of the mind generally held private, and one asks: are the gains (unfortunately, in contrast to a programme like the oft-cited Cathy Come Home, impossible to measure) worth the pain?
My answer I have already indicated. Intrusion is not an absolute quality always utterly to be condemned. Almost all of us suffer intrusion, and not always loving intrusion. So with television, just as with anything else, one ought to consider both the intention and the effect.
I have said I think the effect of intrusion into intimate family concerns in these three cases was decidedly to the good. Let me add that I believe these programmes were made, as very few stories in newspapers are made, with loving intent.
Jenny Barraclough, the director, and her reporters, Esther Rantzen and John Pitman, it seemed to me, were motivated by a genuine (though probably, being human, not unmixed) desire to help people in general by cornpassionately drawing back blinds, and by a desire to help the people they interviewed in particular.
Of course this seeing of what is usually kept behind curtains is. fascinating at a low level. It is gossip. But gossip, when it is done from a desire to help and not just from purposeless curiosity, becomes something altogether pobler. And so it was here.
Indeed, the emotional highspot of all three programmes, that moment where a daughter defying her parents over a working-class boyfriend burst into tears, illustrated the whole situation in three minutes of screen time. Hardly had she broken down than she was turning to the camera and saying "This has just been great, actually, all this." And on the very day the programme went out wedding bells sounded and happy champagne flowed.
This particular programme showed wonderfully clearly just what kind of frankness is needed to penetrate the wall. It was not that the educated, up
per-class parents here were incapable of ordinary openness. They took part eagerly in an exchange with their other swinging London daughter's friends ("you ought to shave" countered by "This generation thinks it an appalling thing that you went to war.")
But when it came to the really personal (are you going to set up home with your boyfriend? And even, what jobs has he actually had?) they baulked. And love should not baulk.
The second programme, a long look at an 18-year-old from a tiny, inward-turned Derbyshire pit village, brought out brilliantly the yearning for individuality that drives many young people away on lonely roads of their own. On one hand we had the obtuse, un thinkingly conformist neighbours ("don't ask me nowt about his hair") and on the other hand the boy himself making his grand declaration, "I'm off to Bradford" — not with any imitated romantic defiance, but as a quiet aside, and with a modest, deprecating smile.
And, set against his small, but difficult, rebellion in search of his true self. we saw too his brother, a newly-married man in his twenties, who had almost made the same decision but (and here was truth) had deliberately refrained. What a telling moment when we saw him in his in-laws' crowded kitchen sitting trying to write poetry with the telly yowling. Conformism has its thorns too.
The third programme last Saturday was perhaps less illuminating because it took not one but two teenagers and their families as its subject. But it made its point precisely from the teenagers it took. Within a year in age, from the same school, one was almost as far from the majority society as possible while the other, interviewed between sets of tennis, was willingly ensconced in the whole respectable thing.
In short. the programme showed us in one strong contrast that there is no generation gap. What we face is a multitude of gaps, some appallingly wide ("just worlds apart," Saturday's 16-year-old said), some quite narrow, some in one direction, some in another. By seeing them thus, as individual things, perhaps we can individually jump some of them.