TV blog: Born on the Same Day

Benjie Goodhart / 10 June 2016

Benjie Goodhart reviews two very interesting documentaries, including a series documenting the three very different lives of people who share a birthday and a look at Koko the talking gorilla.

Born on the Same Day, Tuesday 14th June, 9pm, Channel 4

On 7th March, 1944, three babies were born. Actually, I’m guessing round about a hundred thousand babies were born on that day, but making a programme about all of them would be a right old faff, and would mean Channel 4 could show nothing else until late March, 2020. (I was always told to show my working out, so here we go: This programme deals with three individuals, so 20 minutes per person is 33,333 hours of TV. Transmitting 24-hours-a-day, that would mean around 1,388 days of television, which works out at 3.81 years. Yes, I used a calculator. No, I have no idea why I bothered. Yes, I need to get out more).

Anyway, three babies were born on that day and now, 72 years later, Channel 4 has made a programme about them (the first in a three-part series). One of them is famous. The other two aren’t. The point of the exercise is… well… it’s sort of difficult to say, really. It’s just a look at how lives develop differently. I suppose the idea is that we’re all partly masters of our own destiny, and partly enslaved by the capriciousness of fate.

Funnily enough, though, it helps if you’re born with more names than the phone directory (remember them?) and are a distant cousin of the king. Not that Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes was given every advantage in life. His dad was killed in the war four months before he was born, and it became the young Fiennes’ obsession to become Colonel of his dad’s old regiment, the Royal Scots Greys, to honour the memory of the father he knew only from photographs.

Frances Kelly, too, was deeply marked by childhood experiences. Aged four, her nightie caught fire, and she was terribly burned. She was rushed to hospital. Unthinkably, back then, parents were only allowed to visit their children once a month in hospital, so for the first 22 days, Frances wasn’t visited once. Aged four. Her sense of abandonment was such that almost seven decades later, she weeps bitter tears as she recalls her experiences.

Ewart Reynolds was born on a Jamaican farm, one of nine siblings. In 1960, he said goodbye to everything he knew, as he and his family moved to the UK. Again, so many years down the line, he weeps as he remembers.

So begins a riveting hour of television. Cutting from one story to another, the programme skims through the decades, landing only at the key moments in people’s lives. It does, perhaps, give you an incomplete picture. But it is also a compelling insight into the triumph, tragedy and simple beauty of everyday lives lived by everyday people. The real success of the programme is in not lauding Fiennes’ undoubtedly remarkable life over that of Frances or Ewart. In their own way, all three have been extraordinary. You don’t have to walk across Antarctica and saw off your own frostbitten fingers (yes, really) to be unique. (But, I mean, really, who DOES that?)

Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks to People, Wednesday 15th June, 8pm, Channel 4

In 1971, a Stanford University graduate student called Penny Patterson met a baby gorilla called Koko, with a view to teaching her some sign language as part of her doctorate (Penny’s doctorate, not Koko’s). It was the beginning of a remarkable relationship that has endured over the ensuing 45 years.

Penny’s work with Koko yielded extraordinary results, as she taught her to understand, and use, hundreds and hundreds of signs. In effect, Koko and Penny could talk to one another, an achievement almost certainly unique in all of human history. Sure, we all talk to our animals, but they don’t tend to answer back (perhaps the one thing my kids don’t have in common with animals).

There is footage of almost every moment that Penny and Koko have spent together, thanks to the cameras of the ever-loyal Ron, who has been filming the project from the beginning. This after he fell passionately in love with her the first moment he saw her. I’m still talking about Penny here. He’s fond of Koko, but sheesh! Mind you, I’m with Ron. Penny was quite the glamour-puss in the 1970s.

The nature of Ron and Penny’s relationship isn’t properly addressed in the film. I know I shouldn’t be focussing on that, what with the whole talking gorilla/unique moment in zoological history type stuff, but I can’t get it out of my head. I really hope they’re together, 45 years is a long time to photograph an ape. He’ll be wanting to get the monkey off his back. I’ll get my coat.

Koko’s had her brushes with intimacy too. She had a potential mate called Michael, but grew to regard him as a brother. Or maybe she just considered him her intellectual inferior. The savage beast hasn’t even read A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Perhaps Michael and Ron exchanged knowing, doleful looks over the years.

Anyway, you can’t say it hasn’t been an eventful life for Penny, Ron and Koko. In particular Koko. She’s met everyone from Robin Williams to Sting, William Shatner to Leonardo Di Caprio. She became a huge celebrity. One contributor remarks that the days are gone when Koko used to be able to walk around the campus at Stanford unrecognised. Sorry? Were wandering gorillas two-a-penny in 70s California?

Penny, too, seems to have lived a fulfilled life. She still loves Koko, the way a mother loves a daughter, albeit a rather hairy one who could pull off your head. She lives surrounded by utter chaos (I think Koko is her cleaner) but with thousands of memories, and a genuine and entirely unbreakable bond of love with Koko. You can’t help where your heart leads you. Just ask Ron.

The best… and the rest

All week: Football. You’ll barely be able to switch on your telly without shots of sweaty men in shiny, garish nylon spitting extravagantly and swearing at the man in black (not Johnny Cash).

Saturday 11th June

Trooping the Colour, 10:15am, BBC One: Hurrah. The Queen must be the only person in history to celebrate 154 birthdays (64 of them official). Let’s all celebrate with what we, as a nation, do best. No, not a festival of lager and teen pregnancies, but some pomp, ceremony and precision marching.

Sunday 12th June

Interview with a Murderer, 9pm, Channel 4: Criminologist Professor David Wilson conducts a series or revealing interviews with convicted murderer Bert Spencer, widely suspected of killing paper boy Carl Bridgewater in 1978. Spencer’s strenuous denials merely add to the film’s fascination.

Monday 13th June

Tennis: Queens, 1pm, BBC Two: The countdown to Wimbers is well and truly underway, with Andy Murray bidding to bounce back from defeat in the French Open final by becoming the first man to win five Queens Club titles. Best watched with Pimms and strawberries.

The Secret Life of Kittens, 8pm, Channel 5: What can possibly be secret about the lives of kittens? They’re small, cuddly, not-so-bright mammals, not international spies or secret drugs kingpins. Still, expect lots of “Ahhhhhhh” moments.

Tuesday 14th June

Royal Ascot, 1:40pm, Channel 4: The most glamorous race meeting on the planet. If you like royalty, ridiculous hats, or horses running very fast, this is for you. Best watched with champagne and caviar. Britain and Europe: The Immigration Question, 9pm, BBC Two: Apparently there’s some sort of a referendum coming up. Thank goodness, then, for a TV programme about it.

Find out about the Royal Ascot dress code

Thursday 16th June

This World: The New Gypsy Kings, 9pm, BBC Two: Inside the world of Romania’s super-rich gypsy pop stars, complete with fast cars, lavish houses and distinctly dodgy mates.

Friday 17th June

Gogglesprogs, 8pm, Channel 4: Following a successful one-off Xmas pilot, Gogglebox returns once more to hear from some more junior contributors. Very funny and sweet – and the children’s reaction to Donald Trump is a thing to behold.

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