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The miracle of life... made dull

BIRTH, marriage and death: the three key stages in a person's life and also, with the possible exception of the middle one, supposedly the most intensely intimate. Yet television has been privy to them all.

But the one TV has done to death is birth, with which it seems continually fascinated -- or maybe it's just a convenient way to fill screen time. After all, it's not like you have to look hard to find out where the action is at. Just point your camera at the nearest maternity hospital and you'll stumble across plenty of interesting stories.

There's been some excellent, genuinely moving television made about childbirth, notably TV3's Temple Street Children's Hospital and Channel 4's One Born Every Minute, but I wouldn't bracket Brian Hayes's moribund documentary Births of the Nation in that league.

In technical terms, this was a well-made production; whether you can call it well-meaning, I'm not so sure, because the meaning -- the reason it was made in the first place -- was difficult to divine.

Pegged on the fact that Ireland, once again, has the highest birth rate in Europe (200 babies are born every day) and peppering the screen with birth-related statistics, the film focused, fuzzily, on five expectant mothers in the final weeks of pregnancy.

Two of them had stories that deserved telling. Suzanne had suffered the heartbreak of losing three babies to ectopic pregnancies before she and her husband Adrian turned to IVF. The moment here when an emotional Adrian held his child in his arms for the first time, unconcerned about whether it was a boy or a girl, and declared, "That's deadly," was, dare I say it, life affirming.

Nineteen-year-old Louise, the only lone parent or teenage mother in the film, already has a child, an 11-month-old toddler, having become pregnant at 16, and was looking forward to number two.

Born in Romania but with better English than people I know who were born in The Coombe, her statement that she felt she'd been "put on this earth" to be a mother seemed a strikingly unusual thing for a young woman to say.

An unhappy childhood was hinted at but never explored (could she be in some way overcompensating?), nor was the question of why the father(s) of the children were nowhere to be seen ever touched on.

The fact that the film was so doggedly uncurious about its most interesting subjects and gave equal weight to the largely unremarkable experiences of the three other women, all seasoned childbearers, made for a frustratingly drab hour. The wonder of life has rarely seemed this dull.

You don't so much interview John Lydon as turn him loose. The Sex Pistols/PiL frontman-turned-butter salesman and I'm a Celebrity contestant was in sparkling form on Laurie Taylor's chatshow In Confidence.

The veil of sarcasm occasionally dropped, notably when he spoke about how he's still struggling to cope with the deaths of the parents he had to get to know all over again after a bout of childhood meningitis robbed him of his earliest memories of them.

But he was at his most entertaining when holding forth about the nuns who branded him stupid because he was left-handed ("Thank you, Catholic Church, you hurt your children in more ways than one"), the class hypocrisy of contemporaries The Clash ("I don't believe in parasites"), the tragedy of George Best ("A good soul eaten alive by sharks") and his mixed feelings about the royal family ("How was I to know that the royal wedding would entertain me? I loved it!").

As always, though, it was the do-goodery of rich rock stars that most got his goat. "If Bono really wants to save the world, in that dreary way he puts it, OPEN YOUR WALLET! It's big enough by now -- certainly as big as his ego."

births of the nation HHIII in confidence: john lydon HHHII