TV UK, 6 February

The 20 Things To Do Before You're 30 aren't the things Alexander the Great did.

Dolan Cummings

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Last Sunday’s The Sky at Night (BBC2) was filmed before the Columbia disaster, but the monthly astronomy programme always has a certain funereal quality. The Sky at Night, with its venerable and bemonacled presenter Sir Patrick Moore, is a TV institution that seems to belong to a different age.

Sunday’s episode was about space art, and featured lots of quaint pictures of the planets with rockets and landers here and there. Sir Patrick and his guest, space artist David A Hardy, remembered wistfully how they had expected things to progress so much faster. Even without deadly setbacks like the shuttle disaster, the space programme has suffered from a shrinking of the imagination.

Amy Jenkins, the creator of This Life, famously declared that she was interested in exploring inner space in her drama. This Life documented the overwhelmingly personal concerns of a group of twentysomething lawyers in a post-political and very much post-Space Age London in the early 1990s.

Now, Channel 4 offers us 20 Things To Do Before You’re 30 (Thursdays at 10.35pm). The executive producer Jane Fallon is a veteran of twentysomething drama, having worked on both This Life and Teachers. 20 Things seems to be trying harder than previous efforts to be funny. For example, each episode opens with an ‘amusing’ statistic – the protagonists work for a market research company.

Accordingly, Conrad and Dominic and the others are not working class. But neither are they the professionals, however flawed, of This Life or even Teachers. Instead they are middle-class space-cadets, killing time in the office and indulging in vulgar sexual chitchat. Of course, the things to do before you’re 30 aren’t the things Alexander the Great did (though he probably did some of these too). The premise is that maturity is a kind of death. Consequently this is a story of thwarted youth rather than frustrated ambition.

A similar mood infects Burn It, one of the first programmes to be shown on the BBC’s new youth-oriented digital channel BBC3, which is launched on Sunday. (You can also catch Burn It on BBC1 late on Monday night.) What makes this different, and perhaps what makes it a bit more interesting, is that all the characters are working class. They even have real jobs: there is a postman, a builder, a telecoms engineer, a couple of nurses and a car salesman.

There is a helpful speech about Generation X in the first episode. These young Mancunians grew up as party animals, living for the weekend. Now they are approaching 30, they have to decide whether they want more from life, before it is too late. Marriage, babies, mortgages, careers…. Actually, that’s all adulthood seems to offer, which perhaps explains their reluctance to abandon their adolescence.

The postman, played by Kieran O’Brien (whom viewers of the same age will remember as Gruey), decides that he at least wants a better paid job. He takes an adult education course, which provides a brilliant example of frustrated possibility. Study can open a window to a bigger and better world, but when your course is Computers and Finance, it is likely to have the opposite effect.

In the spirit of expanding our imaginations, then, I’ll end by drawing your attention to The Sky at Night Astro-Art Competition (1). You are invited to submit original artwork depicting human life on Mars. The competition is open to Alexanders of all ages.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) The Sky at Night Astro-Art Competition

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