Obsessives are the stuff of often weirdly compelling television. Take the parents in Child Genius (Channel 4, Monday). The series, back for a second year, follows 15 children taking part in a gruelling, pointless competition run by British Mensa to find the UK’s Child Genius of the Year. “Child” is in the title, but it’s all about the parents. They’re the ones you watch and remember – pushy, terrifyingly confident – clinging to their children’s IQ scores as if the numbers have any relevance in the real world.
Shosana, mother of a hot-housed nine-year-old, Aliyah – “I’m smarter than her. She’s not profoundly gifted, as I was,” says mum – makes it easy to be all judgy and self-righteous, which is the desired response to these cleverly edited parenting-themed programmes. The undeniably smart child isn’t great at memorising decks of cards. (More music-hall trickery than a measure of genius, I’d have thought.) “Can you find a way to forgive yourself?” murmers Shosana, a psychologist (yes, really), to her sobbing child. It’s not the smartest way to reassure a child you’ve set up for a public failure.
The award-winning journalist, former professional cyclist and doping whistleblower Paul Kimmage is a man obsessed – and every minute of the excellently paced, beautifully filmed feature-length documentary Rough Rider (RTÉ One, Monday) shows it.
In his 1990 book he revealed the pervasive culture of performance-enhancing drugs in professional cycling. Instead of being thanked, as he naively expected, he was ostracised by colleagues for breaking rank, for disloyalty to the pack.
The programme details the long-running fallout from his outspoken anti-doping stance, including the sundering of his childhood friendship with his fellow cyclist Stephen Roche and the multiple threats of legal action prompted by the allegations. Libels are, says Kimmage, the Oscars of journalism. "But when you get [the legal letters] it's a pretty shocking and heart-stopping moment."
He believes, as does his fellow sports journalist David Walsh, a contributor to Rough Rider, that had his revelations been acted on back then, particularly by the Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport's governing body, the doping culture that helped produce Lance Armstrong and destroyed the credibility of professional cycling wouldn't have taken hold. Kimmage also says – and he's passionate about this – that the deaths of some young cyclists could have been prevented.
Unsurprisingly, for such a principled man, his mission is not to say "I told you so" but to continue the work. He's still at cycling press conferences asking tough questions – his scepticism is to the fore, and is so clear it's almost visible. He barely acknowledges, although Rough Rider does, that many other journalists are now asking the same questions.
In the credits there's a line that thanks his wife, Ann Kimmage – and if she hadn't been in it, bringing a lightness to the cloud of gloom and righteous anger that seems often to surround her husband, I wouldn't have stuck with it until the end. Last year Kimmage was commissioned by the Sunday Independent to report on the Tour de France, and the pair set off in a camper van to follow the race. There are brief glimpses of another aspect of Kimmage, the more relaxed side of his character.
Towards the end of Adrian McCarthy's well-crafted film, one of Kimmage's fans, the former cyclist Jonathan Vaughters, says, "Paul's got to look on the bright side once in a while, for his own good." By then, and with immense respect, I agree with him.
It's a week of harrowing news from Gaza, with many reports detailing the deaths of children – there are eight on Monday, the day Children of Syria (BBC Two, Monday) is screened. And so, in one way, the timing feels out of sync, as all eyes are now on Gaza. The news cycle is voracious but seems able to focus on only one major story at a time, so the bloody four-year-old war in Syria has fallen off the front pages. But Children of Syria is a terrific, important war documentary that sees the BBC's chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, follow six Syrian children, aged from eight to 14, over six months this year.
All have been displaced from their homes, two to refugee camps along the Turkish border, the rest within Damascus and Homs. With its collapsed buildings and mountains of rubble on what were once busy streets, Homs looks like an eerie set, built for a movie about the end of the world. As well as being deeply moving, even hard to watch at times, this is a beautifully filmed piece of work. The children’s lives are about hunger, terror, uncertainty and dealing with death. They miss school and play and worry about their parents.
All the children have seen too much – one girl’s mother was decapitated and her brother killed when a rocket hit their home. When they are allowed back into their part of Damascus they visit the graves only to find them looted and the bodies exposed. As the father hurries to cover it up the eight-year-old picks up a shovel. “I’m digging graves,” she says. All the children, traumatised and aged by the war, use sentences that should never come out of the mouths of babes. “I hate the future so much,” says 11-year-old, solemn-eyed Daad. “There is no love left in Syria.” They lived in a car for seven months before finding a tiny windowless storeroom above a shop where the family of six now live.
“These children are the future of Syria,” says Doucet – and the war has embedded a hate in their young consciousness that makes the continuation of conflict inevitable. Plucky 10-year-old Izzedin, living in a two-room shipping container in a refugee camp, says, “In the past a 12-year-old was considered young. Now at 12 years old you must go for jihad.” When his brother, a rebel fighter, returns, Izzedin hears stories of mass graves and of murdered women and children, which fire him up.
In Damascus, 14-year-old Jalal looks on as the bodies of two children are taken from a bombed building. An Assad loyalist – children are politicised – he envies his 15-year-old friend, who is old enough to fight. Looking at his only son, his father says, “If I had a choice between sacrificing Jalal or Syria, I’d sacrifice Jalal, because he can be replaced. You cannot replace your homeland.”
“Syria’s war is a war on childhood,” says Doucet. Having heard the hopeless voices of the children, it’s a valuable insight into the future implications of this week’s headlines. firstname.lastname@example.org