Twin freaks

Television - Zoe Williams enjoys an unedifying insight into the lives of the Kilshaws

Earlier this month, on Radio 4, John Humphrys spoke to Judith and Alan Kilshaw in what was widely agreed to be the best example of less-is-more interviewing that the world has ever seen. The couple, who tried and failed to adopt American twins, made about 17 fatal mistakes, of which probably the worst was sounding absolutely stark staring mad.

This is not to denigrate the master and his medium, but nothing beats seeing the pair on telly. Right from the start of Meet the Kilshaws (25 July, 9pm, Channel 4), Judith sounded immature, self-serving, petty, grasping, delusional, solipsistic, otiose and dangerously mad. Oh, and she looks like Shrek. (It's funny, since Shrek was invented, how many people do.) Alan got off pretty lightly simply by not being as bad as his wife, which may go some way towards explaining why he's still with her (an otherwise impenetrable mystery). None the less, he's a spineless piece of work, deploying the language and mannerisms of a reasonable human being as if they might conceal the reality of his behaviour.

The programme began with Judith wandering around the room that would have been occupied by the twins. "See - new teddies! And they've never even been played with," she said, as if she was trying to flog room plus contents to someone else who might need baby facilities in duplicate. She wanted the twins because, due to a mishap involving a consultant, she spent her fourth pregnancy expecting a girl, who turned out to be a boy. Feeling shortchanged, she tried to conceive again, and spent a year on IVF treatment, only to find that she had the "illness of infertility" - an illness whose medical name is "past it".

Her maundering on the subject rankled, coming from someone whose breeding days have been pretty fruitful, but then, everything about her rankles, which is what made this such good telly. They decided against adopting in England because, according to Alan, they were too old. Also, "Judith smokes quite a bit, and I don't drink a lot but . . . that may have been something to do with it." It may come as news to the rest of the population that you can't adopt in England unless you drink a lot.

They proceeded to look on the internet for an adoption agency, find one, and rove America like an outsize Bonnie and Clyde until they had a pair of bouncing twins. The rest is history, and not a history substantially revised here. The pair rarely mentioned the twins, which made their tenacity seem freakish. (In fact, the only time Judith mentioned them was when she was in a hotel waiting for the trial - "If I didn't love them and want them, I wouldn't be standing here! I'd be at home, eating a Mars Bar, making a hot chocolate." You got the feeling she could have come up with more confectionery deprivations to prove the depth of her love, if only the interviewer had pressed her. "What about a Penguin? Might you be eating a Penguin?") They frequently seemed to be on the edge of divorce - specifically when one delivered the line: "I hate your face, I hate your body, I hate your mind, I hate everything about you", but I'm prepared to bet my life that you'd get that from any couple if you followed them about with a camera for six months. Otherwise, all you discovered was the paucity of Judith's cussing vocabulary, which ran the gamut from the terse "Shit'eds!", through the emphatic "Shitheads!" to the explosive "Shit. Heads!". What kind of a mother doesn't even know swearing staples like "arse"? Oh, and they have a pig. That looked like a nice pet.

Yes, Judith is an execrable mother. On the one occasion she did take her own offspring for some beach fun, they appeared to be drifting too far out to sea, so she screamed like a banshee from a hundred paces away, but at no point did it occur to her to go and get them (and they are cute little tots - you wouldn't want them to drown). Meanwhile, Alan, a ghastly, money-grabbing, inert lump of a man, stuck to a speaking part that mainly consisted of "Can we get any money out of it?" and "I'm leaving. I'm sick of the whole business."

Still, the fact remains that they didn't pay for the twins, they paid an adoption agency. People do adopt babies from abroad, and they do pay handling fees. The hysteria about "internet baby selling" is misplaced - the net functioned as no more than a directory of international adoption agencies. There was no discussion of the legality of this case, of the guidelines on adopting foreign children, or of the ethics of the same. The sorry sight of Tony Blair, condemning the couple in parliament because that's what the Daily Mail had done, was used as background material, but never puzzled over.

This could have worked on a number of levels - as a consideration of our laws and values, or as a look at the relationship between the tabloids, policy-makers and the judiciary. Hell, it could have offered up some thoughts on what makes a fit parent. But no, it just gave us two repellent personalities. If, as Truffaut said, all you need for a film is a girl and a gun, then all you need for a documentary is a pair of freaks with bad highlights. It wasn't particularly edifying - but it was good fun.

Zoe Williams is a columnist on the London Evening Standard. Andrew Billen is away on holiday

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, So what tribe do you belong to?