Off Limits: Sibling Rivalry, Channel 4, Friday, October 14, 10.40am. Teachers' guide, Pounds 4.95, Educational Television Company, PO Box 100, Warwicks CV34 6TZ. In this examination of sibling rivalry, a family of three children, mother and father are given the David Bellamy wildlife documentary treatment. A grey-haired, besuited presenter gesticulates and postulates on their behaviour as a jumpy, hand-held camera records their bickering, their rare tender moments and their complaining, analysing and hypothesising on why they all behave the way they do.
This is a phenomenon that we all know and hate, and it could have made for leaden television. But production company Double Exposure has instead put together a pastiche of drama and documentary, weaving between the two, with different camera techniques and tickling the intellect and the eye all the while.
One moment, we have the angelic, aggrieved youngest child, all tucked up in bed, reading us "Billy Goats Gruff" which, in her rendering, becomes a parable for the sibling hell which typifies her family and millions of others around the country. Her purity and sweetness take on a wonderfully malevolent tone as she quotes the littlest billy goat telling the troll to"wait for my brother, he's bigger and you can eat him". The next minute we see the presenter, furiously taking notes while being affectionately terrorised at the breakfast table by the family hound. We then watch the film crew hovering over the strife-torn breakfast table, documenting the bad-tempered exchanges, the wheedling and the explosive departure of the father, who puts his hand over the camera, bellowing "you can switch that bloody thing off, too".
The dramatised scenarios of filial fury and recrimination, buttressed by a sharp but emollient mother and a bull in a china shop of a father whose intervention always makes things worse is by turns funny, blood-pressure-raising and all too familiar to anyone who has grown up with siblings.
The fictional McDonald family of Mark, 17, Sarah, 15 and Jane, 11 is not average because, as the earnest presenter enthuses, "no family is". Okay, maybe not average, but typical, yes. Mark confides to the camera that "It seems I'm their pride and joy. But if I do one thing wrong, it's a major let-down. " Sarah, going around the house singing "the most beautiful girl in the world" because she knows she is, confidentially tells us that she feels eclipsed, as the middle child, by Mark and Jane. "You're not special because you're not the first or the last." And then there's Jane, variously detested and adored by both Mark and Sarah, mollycoddled by her mum but not given much attention by her father. "I don't really know what to say to her," he admits to his wife.
The emotional truth of the film, sometimes poignantly depicted, is set against the cold anthropological utterances delivered by the presenter. "It's through fights and conflicts that we learn how to cope with life," he drones after a particularly heated exchange.
The extensive teachers' guide to the Off Limits series offers good ideas for discussions on the business of families and how students identify themselves within this most complex yet most fundamental of frameworks.