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Remarkable strides

THERE must be an irresistible bargain price being offered for recent film depicting American Creationists - for, whatever the ostensible subject of a TV documentary, that's what we seem to get.
 
The Family that Walks on All Fours (BBC2, last Friday) was a good example. This was a remarkable film. A Turkish anthropologist published a paper describing a poverty-stricken Kurdish family where four of the siblings walk on their hands and feet rather than upright. A Cambridge team was desperate to study them; for the implications are immense.
 
Walking upright is what separates Homo sapiens from the other primates: the linked development of our brains and our manual dexterity all derive from this one revolutionary act; so humans who choose not so to walk might offer the clue to how we made that giant step for mankind.
 
We travelled with them to the remote village, and the four (aged between 18 and 34) are a pitiful sight, their gait shambling and awkward, their hands deformed and calloused, the butt of cruel derision from their neighbours. They clearly suffer from mental subnormality - is this the root of their problem? Brain scans demonstrate that they all have a severely underdeveloped hypothalamus - but others with this condition do not walk on all fours. A genetic abnormality is identified - perhaps it all lies in the DNA.
 
A German research team is on the verge of announcing that it has found the gene that, millions of years ago, made us walk upright - we carry within us all the genes of our remote ancestors, and a genetic disorder can (as I understand it) switch off a more recent gene so that a more ancient one comes back into prominence.
 
But now religion rears its ugly head. The village - and the family - is devoutly Muslim. Anything that reinforces Darwinian evolution over against Allah's creation of distinct and separate species cannot be tolerated; so the scientists are nearly driven out of town. Switch to the US, where, with rather strained relevance, we see all the old familiar stuff about the rise of Creationism and its hostility to Darwin.
 
But then comes the wonderful twist. One of the scientists - a Cambridge man, of course - is not convinced that genetics is the only answer. The subjects are from a family of 19, seven of them born within five years. He suspects that the problem is far simpler: their mother lacked the time and energy to encourage her brain-damaged children to walk properly.
 
The team builds them parallel bars for practice, and after a few months they have made - sorry - remarkable strides. Instead of chronicling a throwback to our apelike ancestors, the programme permitted us to watch some adult humans learning to walk upright. It was deeply moving.
 
Fabulosa (BBC4, Monday of last week) depicted, for me, a damaged man who never achieved healing. Michael Sheen gave a remarkably accurate portrayal of Kenneth Williams, tortured by his homosexuality, forced by his demons to take on the most extreme camp persona, never daring to consummate his attraction to other men. Making other people laugh, originally a shield to deaden his self-loathing, became the fuel that fanned its flames. He hates what he does, and can't stop doing it. It was a bleak drama, more pitiful than funny - but marvellous TV.

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