Saturday 19 October 2019

Allison Pearson: 'Feelings may have been hurt by BBC ad, but the real pain is that it holds a lot of truth'

A scene from the BBC short film ‘Wonderland’
A scene from the BBC short film ‘Wonderland’

Allison Pearson

The BBC's Christmas ad, if you haven't seen it yet, was clearly designed to tap into that fuzzy festive family feeling that has made John Lewis's short film a keenly anticipated annual event. Unfortunately, what was meant to be as simple and joyful as mistletoe turned out to be a holly wreath, pricking the consciences of female viewers who have quite enough on their teetering mince-pie plate already.

A two-minute film, called 'Wonderland', tells the story of a working mother so frantic ("In a minute! Anyone seen my keys?"), she has stopped paying attention to her teenage son. Even when she's in the kitchen, she's never truly home because she's responding to emails on her phone. As mum dashes out the front door, the boy resorts to texting to get her attention, asking: "You still coming tonight, Mum?" She's not sure she can make it.

Next comes a poignant inter-cutting of images: the mother run ragged at her desk, her son moodily playing alone in the amusement arcade of their seaside town. Then, something miraculous happens. Time freezes. The woman's colleagues become statues while the screensaver on her computer is suddenly a photograph of her with her son when he was a toddler.

We read the thoughts that are scudding through her mind because, so often, they may have been our own. "Where do the years go? Look at my adorable baby! What happened to him? Hell, what happened to me? How could I have told him I wasn't sure I could make it tonight?"

Wordlessly, the woman dashes to the seafront where she knows immediately that she made the right choice because of the pleasure in her boy's eyes.

Mum and son go on the dodgems together, they eat candyfloss. By now, the mother is looking at her son. No, really looking at him, drinking him in and appreciating how precious he is. The boy, for his part, positively glows in the warmth of his mother's regard. Up comes a caption: Christmas Time Together. As the lights on the town's tree are switched on, we know it's not just a Norwegian spruce that has been illuminated.

A deeply touching film, 'Wonderland' has been accused of making working mothers feel bad. Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, said: "Our users are pretty united in thinking the ad hits a bit of a bum note. From the apparently incapable dad to the implication that mothers' employment is both optional and selfish, it pulls off the distinctly non-festive trick of putting all the blame on already frantic mothers and making them feel pretty lousy."

A few things strike me about this hostile reaction. The first is that, increasingly, consumers look to books, TV and films to make them feel good about their choices, not to tell them truths which may be painful or unwelcome. The second, as I know all too well from being a novelist, is that anyone who dares to comment on motherhood is walking into the lioness's den. (Women are sensitive to criticism anyway, but, boy, if they detect even a mild reproof about how they take care of their kids, you'd better be wearing chainmail.)

The third point is that the BBC ad is not actually an attack on the poor, harassed woman who has stopped tuning into her offspring. See it, rather, as a sad reflection on a society which is so full of busy-ness, so in thrall to feeding the famished beast of work, that the greatest bond on this earth - that between mother and child - is in danger of fraying.

The evidence for this unnatural calamity is everywhere, but we choose to look the other way. It's too uncomfortable to think about. We blame cyber-bullying and exam pressure for the epidemic of teenage mental health problems (both are contributory factors undoubtedly) while, at the same time, excusing ourselves. Kids today are the first generation of adolescents likely to be brought up in homes where both parents are in full-time work. Remarkable figures published earlier this year by the UK's Institute for Fiscal Studies found that only half of mothers aged between 25 and 54 were in work in 1975 in the UK. By 2015, 72pc went back to work, leaving their children in the care of others.

That has to be one of the most seismic social shifts of the past century. We know all about its benefits - women playing an equal part at last in almost every profession, and how wonderful that is - but what about its consequences? I was talking to an old friend, a therapist in her 50s, about our teenage offspring, when she said: "We have been absent from their lives for long hours yet uniquely on their case." Perfectly true. My mother could not have told you what A-levels I was doing, let alone engage a tutor to shunt me through them. But she was there, 24/7. I, as a stressed-out working parent, definitely struggled to provide for my two. Did I feel guilty? Always. Yet I knew that I had to work. I felt as if I was watching my children grow up in the rear-view mirror.

See, painful truth. But no one in authority listens because motherhood, probably the most important job you can ever do, is unpaid and therefore has no economic value. Which is appalling, frankly.

Maybe we need to rebalance, to take time to reconsider what matters. Isn't that what the BBC ad is saying, isn't that why it brings tears to our eyes? At the heart of the Christmas story is a mother and her baby. It would be wonderful this festive season if the ad could inspire employers to come up with flexible solutions which enabled mums (and dads) to have more family time without feeling guilty. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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