Television: Light on their feet – plus-size dancers who soar above their limitations

It could have turned into a cruel, fat-shaming contest, but Channel 4’s ‘Big Ballet’ treated its subjects with a light touch

Early in the auditions for Big Ballet (Channel 4, Thursday), one of the hopefuls, a large, straight-talking woman from the north of England, says what everyone is trying hard not to think: "What's if it's like that film Fantasia where they've hippos in tutus being thrown around?" Then, just in case anyone confuses candour with confidence, she adds ruefully: "That'll be me." Ballet is a thin person's game: not normal-person thin but a whole other world of deprivation and sacrifice where being tiny is inextricably linked with succeeding in the art form.

Big Ballet, the latest live-your-dreams- on-telly series, gives plus-size women – and a few men – the chance to perform Swan Lake. It could go either way: an uplifting story of achievement against the odds or a cruel, fat-shaming bit of entertainment.

In this week's first episode that shadow hovers over it like a Zeppelin, and both mentors – the choreographer and former dancer Wayne Sleep and the Irish ballet tutor and former prima ballerina Monica Loughman – are aware of it. Sleep talks "about breaking the biggest taboo: size", saying that as a teen he was told a career in dance would be impossible because he's only 5ft 2in. Loughman sounds more nervous about how Big Ballet will work out: "There's a fine line between is it credible or it's not."

So far it is, though, and seeing the way the women become quite different people – literally lighter on their feet – during the tough audition process makes the transformative power of dance an easy buy-in. What’s remarkable is how their image of ballet is still bound up with childhood dreams of princesses and fantasy worlds, as well as how early the women’s negative body image – and they all have it – kicks in. Typically, they were around the age of six when a dance teacher or a parent told them they were too big or the wrong shape.


Loughman is worth tuning in for, because she’s so fabulously bossy, and although Sleep can’t quite help commenting on the women’s weight, and being a bit camp and giddy about it, with Loughman it’s down to business. There is no time for sob stories: it’s all about the dance and getting it right.

The three-part series isn’t going to change the ballet world. None of the contestants is under any illusion that a career at the Royal Ballet beckons – but it might just make it seem a more accessible art form to people who, as one of the participants said, “like their food”.

Watching 21st Century Child (RTÉ One, Thursday) is like being trapped with a group of nice, chatty parents telling stories about their offspring – the sort of stuff only blood relatives could find interesting. “She strikes me as the type to be studious,” says one mother of her six-year-old. “Oh, she’s a Duffy through and through,” or, “He’s great fun to be around.” And on and on it goes.

The ambitious and worthwhile-in-theory series, which began in 2007, is supposed to be about tracking a group of Irish children from birth, but it's all about the parents. This isn't their fault. The programme makers don't appear very interested in the children or simply can't find a way to communicate with them. So there's little in the way of insight about what it is like to be a six-year-old or what, developmentally, being six should or might mean. Instead, 21st Century Child goes for the easier option of getting the parents to talk about the children, which isn't the same thing at all.

This year's series, in two parts, is presented by the psychologist David Coleman, who is standing in a playground and leaning against a climbing frame. He delivers no particular insights into the children who feature. Instead he booms, in a this-is-very- important voice, some general theories about six-year-olds.

Aside from one little fellow, the other children hardly get a look-in in this episode. Given the goodwill of the parents in allowing access to their families, it's a missed opportunity, and now a pale imitation of Robert Winston's superb Child of Our Time, for the BBC, which tracks a group of children born in 2000.

Ross Kemp’s macho-man-of-the-people approach works for what his successful Extreme World (Sky1, Tuesday) series does: make current-affairs programmes for people who normally consider them too boring to bother with. So it’s all wars and pirates and good guys in white and bad boys in black and broad strokes that leave the subtleties for those blokes who do their current-affairs programmes from behind a desk in a studio.

Wherever he is filming, the suggestion is that Kemp is being very brave indeed just being there in the first place. This week he is in Belfast in July, in the run-up to marching season. His man-of-the-people thing begins early, with his information coming from a Protestant taxi driver who specialises in tours of the city. Kemp says he isn’t taking sides, and I believe he thinks that, but this is a one-sided look at Northern Ireland politics, with many soundbites from unionists left unchecked or unchallenged.

The marches, he is told, “are an opportunity for the republicans to attack”; “It’s the people who have been peaceful all these years who are being demonised”; and, that old saw, “All we want as a band is just to be left alone to express our culture.”

A home-grown drama billed as an "emotional thriller" – how could you ignore the promise of Scéal: Cathú (TG4, Tuesday)? After all, subtitled thrillers are all the rage. But perhaps TG4 got the tapes mixed up, because Cathú is less like the latest Scandi drama and more like an educational video made to warn couples on some nutty premarital course about the dangers of playing away.

Ben (Stephen Darcy) and his fiancee, Maria (Cait Ní Dhuinnin), are busy decorating their idyllic new rural home between bouts of sex on the dust sheets. Maria had an affair with local stud Doug. Now Ben is having an affair – and it’s not his first. Then Ben breaks out in spots, so he goes to the doctor, who diagnoses HIV. Maria blames Doug, but it soon emerges that Ben was infected on a rugby weekend in dirty Dublin. Maria leaves him. He tries to finish the wallpapering. Meanwhile, in a metaphor as heavy-handed as the direction and as corny as the script, ants are eating away at the lovely new house. The end.

A most peculiar film.