Michael Portillo in Horizon: How Violent Are You. BBC

Sorry about the picture of Michael Portillo (above). Who’d have thunk I’ve have his fatty features squished onto my pages?

But he was on BBC 2 last night, presenting an ep of Horizon which has found its way onto my radar this series in a way it never has before. Maybe it’s the sleb presenters (David Baddiel et al), maybe it’s just that the BBC has made the subjects of each documentary more relevant and accessible than before. But this is the second or third Horizon film I’ve knowingly sought out and watched.

Last night’s film was all about violence and what makes humans behave so violently. Is it something we learn or something that’s innate, that we’re born with?

Portillo suggested he was normally a peacable type of bloke, although in psychiatric testing he revealed he’d smacked at least two computers and a fax machine in his time. “Scientists” say this sort of behaviour indicates the “core” personality of someone, which that person tries to control in everyday life. Certainly, most people try to control their violent tendencies after the age of three, when, we were told, the front part of the brain begins to develop strong links with the emotional centre of the brain, telling us that violence is wrong and it’s better to share than simply stab your neighbour to death.

But even Portillo’s supposedly equable personality changed after enduring 60 hours of sleep deprivation and the unrelenting, shrill demands of simulated three-month-old twin babies. “The noise goes through you like a knife,” said the presumably child-free Portillo on videocam. Tell me about it, Mike. I’ve got the bloody T-shirt for enduring night-time crying.

Apparently sleep deprivation, like alcoholism or a car accident, can damage the front part of the brain that controls violent instincts, leading to increased hostility and aggression. (At last! The explanation I’ve needed to put to my partner for years of barely concealed anger and resentment!) If Portillo was still in politics, perhaps he’d factor this sort of thinking into dealing with the perpetrators of terrible crimes like the abuse of Baby Peter. I’m not condoning that violence. I’m just saying the perpetrators need help too.

But there are other causes of violence involving more subtle changes to a personality. The sort of pre-meditated violence that led to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany or the massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia comes, it seems, from a human ability to swap morality for submission to authority. Portillo observed a terrifying experiment in which 9 out of 12 ordinary people subjected someone to a 450-volt electric shock because they believed it was being done in the name of science and because they took a professor’s word for it that no lasting damage was being done to the person receiving the shocks.

The sequence showed us everything we need to know about ideolody, totalitarianism, gang violence and how individuals can succumb to something bigger than themselves which overrides their own sense of what’s morally right.

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Television. Hmm

Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. BBC

Hmm. What have I watched this week? Nothing, really. Not great for a TV journalist. I tried a bit of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on the BBC iPlayer the other night, but just didn’t find it funny. And he was talking about television. Far better was part two of Eddie Izzard – Sexie, which had been on the radio somewhere. Now he knows how to do stand-up comedy. Even on radio where you can’t see the ‘stage business’.

And, other than that, there’s literally been nothing that takes my interest this week. Monday: nothing, including C4’s The Great Sperm Race, “the story of human conception brought to life as people, playing the part of sperm, negotiate hostile terrain”. Sounded like a Guinness ad gone horribly, badly wrong. Tuesday: bloody Heston Blumenthal again on C4; Mistresses on BBC 1; Horizon on BBC 2 doing earthquakes; and Holloway prison on ITV. No thanks.

Wednesday: The (new series of the) Apprentice on BBC 1. Despite the fact that this show gets more and more popular, it is just another reality TV show in which we’re supposed to get to know the contestants and┬álive their (unscripted therefore supposedly close to real-life) ups and downs as they struggle to win the approval of SirAlun’s gimlet eye. I can’t do it, I just can’t.

So to tonight and more of ER on More4. I like the sound of The Mentalist on Five, but that may just be the title. In our household the term ‘mentalist’ is used with approval, as ‘it’s mental’ was back in, oh, the 80s or something.

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Perfect happiness

Author James Runcie. Christian Sinibaldi/Guardian

After last week’s Horizon with David Baddiel contemplating the education system and children’s happiness, comes this article from the Family section of Saturday’s Guardian. And a whole new level of self-doubt and questioning for liberal-minded parents.

Forget, for the moment, that the author is the son of former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. Runcie Jr writing here seems like a pretty normal bloke. Forget also or gloss over the repetition in the first few paragraphs of this piece. He or the subs probably had to pad the original out to fill a whole page.

For my money, James Runcie makes an excellent point in his final two pars about the general weight of expectation parents place on their children. Even the most laissez faire mother or father just wants their children “to be happy”. But this in itself can be a burden, an expectation which the child shoulders throughout their life. Runcie suggests children, as they grow up, should be treated as people and allowed to set their own levels of expectation and disappointment rather than inherit your own.

This reminds me of my own cynical reaction years ago to reading something by a (young, new) mother writing of her children that she only wanted them to grow up happy and not addicted to drugs. Show me someone who’s truly happy and not addicted to drugs, where your definition of drugs includes caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. The notion of perfect happiness is one of the biggest perversions and distractions of our time. I’m with the “good enough” school of thought on this, as with most things.

Happy Monday.

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Who do you want your child to be?

David Baddiel and brother in BBC 2's Horizon. BBC

Perhaps consciously playing on the title Who Do You Think You Are? which has also featured comedian David Baddiel in a serious role, last night’s Horizon saw Baddiel investigating the British education system and asking whether it can maximise both a child’s intellectual potential and their happiness at the same time.

A worthy question and one that anyone with children, particularly those starting out on the great education experiment, would love to know the answer to. Baddiel’s own kids are seven and four.

There was lots in this programme to love and little to hate. Love or hate the technique, but celebrity is the perfect way into this kind of subject. We got some of Baddiel’s own story – his mixed experiences of school (he did well but “hated” it); his spell in hospital as a confused teenager; his progression to Cambridge and his fear of the nine-to-five work ethic which presumably led him to become a stand-up comedian.

We also met Baddiel’s brother, who remembers consistently being in the bottom sixth of the class at primary school and is these days a taxi driver in New York after an apparently chequered working history. We even got to meet Baddiel’s father, who Baddiel remembers saying the choice of English and History A’ Levels was “a waste of a brain”. Now in his 70s or 80s, Baddiel’s father admits he was being “unkind”. Ah, the differences between intention, perception and the passage of 30-odd years.

There was science as well as personal anecdote. The loving repetition of a 1970s Stanford University experiment in which a four-year-old child is given four marshamallows with the promise of more if he or she can resist eating any of them for a full 10 minutes. The child is then left alone for that time and must devise distracting strategies in order to resist the immediate temptation of the marshamallows on the table. Subsequent research has shown that those who did resist the sweets did better at school than those who crumbled, were ill less often and were even less likely to divorce as adults.

I love this sort of stuff. Just like I loved the idea that kids shown how to solve a puzzle tend to give up earlier on problems than children who are left alone to play with the puzzle, who tend to be more flexible and creative in their solutions. This plays well to the faint air of neglect in all my parenting. I like to give the kids some freedom and they’ll thank me for it in the end.

The killer finding, though, was that you can spoil your child’s chances of academic and presumably life success with just three words. “You’re so clever.” (Forget the ellipse of you and are. Pointing that out is not big or clever.) Baddiel didn’t say so on camera but he must join me in thinking oh god, here’s yet another ‘DONT’ for the angsty, guilt-ridden, liberal-minded parent who just wants their kids to be happy.

These days it’s all about being specific in your praise. Baddiel’s answer to his daughter’s full marks at a spellin test is to say something like “You must have worked really hard for that.” Mine is to say “Great work on the spelling. Now set the table for tea, why don’t you?”

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