Saturday 20 January 2018

Last night’s TV: Donor Dilemmas

One sunny afternoon in the mid-1980s Joan Isherwood and her husband Howard were out for a walk on a quiet country road in Crete. It was the first foreign holiday and they were accompanied by their two sons, Andrew (9) and four-year-old David.

Almost unnoticed, until it was too late, the driver of a white Toyota lost control of his car and crashed straight into the family. Both boys were killed. Joan, who was 41 at the time, was severely injured.

Physically, she recovered, but her life was destroyed. As she tried to make sense of what happened to her, she decided that she wanted more children. In 1993, she gave birth to twins, Jonathan and Katherine, with the help of eggs from an anonymous donor.

Donor Mum: The Children I’ve Never Met (BBC1) was the fascinating and moving story of that donor and her desire to see the children she had helped to conceive.

Although the law in the early 1990s insisted that all donations be anonymous, Sylvia Barr - through good luck and some detective work - soon found out the names of the babies born with her eggs.

She did nothing with the information for almost two decades. Then last year, she decided to contact them. BBC cameras were with her every step of the way to record the consequences of that decision.

The early part of last night’s documentary was slow to get going. At this point, the viewer had been introduced to Sylvia only, and we weren’t too sure about her, to put it mildly.

She never fully explained why she donated her eggs – she said it was because she wanted to help – and her decision to contact the twins and their mother seemed selfish. “Now that they’re adults, I need to make them aware of my existence”, was the best reason she could come up with.

What if their lives were turned upside down by the contact from this woman claiming to be their biological mother? What if they didn’t know the circumstances of their birth? Although Sylvia said she didn’t want to hurt anybody, neither of those questions really seemed to register with her.

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. Joan Isherwood was delighted to hear from her, and the twins quickly came around too. “We were told it was a totally anonymous decision and as far as I was concerned, that was the end of it”, Joan said.

“But I often used to wonder because not only did Sylvia help to create the twins but she actually gave me my life back because I felt as though my life had been destroyed.

“I was so grateful to be given the chance to create a second family that had I met Sylvia on the day she donated the eggs, I would have been absolutely thrilled”.

The final scenes of the documentary showed everybody meeting up in Wales, including Sylvia’s son Elliott, born with the help of a sperm donor and involved in a so far unsuccessful search to find his biological father.

As they all met up, this thoroughly modern family, the two mothers and the twins and the half- brother they never knew they had, it was noticeable how relaxed and easy they seemed with each other.

For the twins, in particular, it must have been a strange experience. As Joan had acknowledged earlier in the documentary, they wouldn’t have been born had her two sons not been killed in that accident in Crete.

But they seem to have coped well with the mysteries and tragedies that helped give them life. Donor Mum was an understated tribute to the capacity of people to deal with whatever is thrown at them.

If only everybody at the Big Brother house was coping as well.

Because Channel 5 has so few viewers in Ireland, this year’s contest isn’t receiving too much attention here. Which is a pity because it’s really rather fun.

Since it started almost two weeks ago, Jedward have been replaced as the bookies favourites by Kerry Katona, who is carrying out one of the greatest acts of self-rehabilitation seen in a long time.

Once one of the most disliked people in Britain (and unpopular here too because of the perception that she wasn’t a good mother to Bryan McFadden’s children), she’s recast herself as the sweet but mischievous, fun but sensible elder stateswoman of the house.

Meanwhile, Jedward continue to annoy their fellow housemates, being regularly chastised for their lack of interest in cleaning and tidying, and pushing poor Paddy Doherty to the edge of a big fat nervous breakdown.

“I’m all f…ed up in the head here”, he told Big Brother yesterday, after watching a horror movie with Jedward and a few of the others. “I’m like a fish out of water. I don’t mix with country people [a reference to the twins]. They are laughing at stupid things. I need my woman to say: ‘Paddy, you are alright’”.

Once, he sang their praises. Now they’ve driven him mad. Could this be Ireland’s future relationship with Jedward too?

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