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Parental surprises

24 February 2017

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JUST as surely as the clergy of the medieval Church developed litur­gies to prompt our behaviour in sacred rites, so the modern media has evolved particular set responses to recurring rituals. The necessity for talent-show contestants to ded­icate their performances to a re­­cently deceased nan, for instance; or the subjects of the television show Who Do You Think You Are? to break forth into floods of tears.

The comedian Mark Steel was having none of it. In the account he gave of tracing his natural parents in Who Do I Think I Am? (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), instead of sentimentality, there was fascination and outrage at the plight of a mother forced to give her baby over for adoption, and the discovery of a father whose career and politics are the polar opposite of his own.

Politics features heavily in all of Steel’s comedy; and now we know where he gets it from. On first being contacted by the adoption agency with a request to meet her long-lost son, Steel’s mother is reported to have asked: “What are his politics?”

Meanwhile, Steel’s father — es­­tranged from his mother — became a backgammon champion and hung out with the world’s plutocrats at the Claremont Club.

To sustain this material for an hour, even when there is such a gripping story, is im­­­pressive. Never weepy, the show nevertheless had a mourn­ful tone — although mourn­ing what, neither he nor we could truly figure out.

A more extreme form of ancestral rediscovery, as practised by the Peruvian artist Christian Fuchs, was featured on Outlook (World Service, Wednesday of last week). A descendant of German aristocrats who moved to South America in the 19th century, Fuchs likes to dress up as them and take photographs of himself. One can only imagine the reaction of his hairdresser when he presented a picture of his great-great-great-aunt Leonora. And bear in mind that Fuchs suffered con­sider­able discomfort as he at­­tempted to recreate the look of great Uncle Carl, complete with flowing white beard.

In the week of St Valentine’s Day and the Synod’s latest debate on marriage, there was no better counter­point than the World Service’s feature on The Silver Ring Thing (Witness, Friday), the Evangelical move­ment established in the United States in 1995 which encourages teen­agers to abstain from sex until marriage.

We met Denny Pattyn, the preacher who, having lost his job and home, relocated to Arizona and began the youth outreach pro­gramme, which currently has more than 100,000 adherents. As you might have guessed, Pattyn was a bad boy once, and he is driven by a religious pro­selytis­ing agenda; which is why the Bush administra­tion’s support for the movement as part of federal funding for sex education became so controversial.

Pattyn has three daughters in the programme. Whether the current administration makes him feel more or less confident about his girls’ well-being was a question left unasked.

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