Horizon: the Nine Months That Made You (BBC 2)

Rachel Cooke applauds good old entertainment and is perplexed by biology.

The BBC has a highly enjoyable if rather old-fashioned new teatime entertainment called Epic Win, in which members of the public use their bizarre talents to win cash prizes. There are several reasons to love this show. Those of us who miss Jim'll Fix It have been longing for a series like this - good-humoured, eccentric and weirdly democratic - for well over a decade. I like its presenter, Alexander Armstrong, who has a nice way with people: well-mannered but gently funny. Most of all, I like watching the contestants. The first episode (BBC1, 20 August, 5.30pm) featured a 51-year-old decorator with unfathomably strong lungs. To go through to the money round, he had to blow up three hot water bottles until they burst, while riding an exercise bike - a task he performed with no trouble. "Boof!" went the bottles, exploding to the sound of the clapping studio audience.

I thought about this man a few evenings later, as I struggled through a Horizon documentary called The Nine Months That Made You (22 August, 9pm). His lungs, we learned during Epic Win, were powerful even in childhood - he would attempt to blow out the candles on his birthday cake and end up splattering butter icing all over the faces of his astonished aunties - and no doctor has ever been able to work out why. The thrust of the Horizon film was that the single biggest influence on our bodies and how efficiently they function throughout our lives is the nine months we spend in the womb. What, I wondered, had happened to Epic Win's Mr Incredible in the womb? Is this a mystery that scientists will one day be able to solve?

Right now, they have more pressing matters to deal with. Research by David Barker of South­ampton University suggests a link between low birth weight and adult diabetes; as a result, doctors around the world are focusing their efforts on raising the former in order to reduce the latter. The cause of this link? Alas, that is a more complex question. In the Netherlands, where scientists have been studying babies born during the famine that followed the Nazis' exit from the country - babies who, as adults, have been more prone to high cholesterol, diabetes and even breast cancer - doctors are increasingly convinced that a mother's diet is involved. Nothing is proven, at this point. The placenta may also play a role. In Saudi Arabia, research has shown that the placenta changes size during Ramadan, when women fast. On the other hand, a smaller placenta doesn't necessarily mean a smaller baby.

The Nine Months That Made You was confusingly digressive: one interlude looked at medical research suggesting that a baby's personality may be evident even when it is still inside the mother. Some babies, confronted with sudden noises, bounce violently around in their amniotic fluid, while others lie there placidly, thumb in mouth. The thought occurs that, in the fullness of time, this could prove to be very bad news for psychoanalysts.

What did this have to do with Professor Barker's worldwide campaign? I'm not sure. Perhaps the film was always going to be confusing for me. The experts are right to consider playing down the role of genes. I mean, both my parents were scientists, the kind who would encourage me (I won't use the word "force") to grow my own "penicillin" on slices of stale bread - yet, faced with an equation to balance, my brain would always turn to mush.

No wonder the scene in Horizon that most caught my imagination had to do with culture, not science. In Saudi Arabia, the placenta is
considered a kind of twin to the baby that it nourishes, a twin that "dies" during birth so that its sibling might live. An eerie few moments of film showed three men in thobes and ghutras carefully burying a placenta in a silent graveyard. Around them were hundreds of small, pointed stones, each marking the spot of a similar burial. It was a strange and beautiful sight: a perfect metaphor for the mysteries that elude us still and, perhaps, always will.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide