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.