TV One’s documentary The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds is full of backstabbing and manipulation and tearful emotional breakdowns – it’s also very cute and ultimately quite heartwarming, writes Calum Henderson.
Lily walks up to Alfie, who sits alone at a picnic table, and asks in a seductive Geordie accent: “Who d’ya want to marry?”
“Um,” Alfie replies absentmindedly. “You.”
“Good answer,” says Lily.
She continues along this line of enquiry for a couple more questions, asking Alfie who he wants to kiss, and finally, who he fancies. Every time he answers the same.
“Oh!” says Lily in feigned surprise. “Do you not fancy Emily any more?”
“Hmm…” Alfie thinks for a second. He is trapped. “Nah.”
“What do you want to do about her,” Lily asks, a hint of menace creeping into her voice. “Do you want to bin her?”
Sweet, fun-loving Emily, with her frizzy brown hair and missing front teeth, has been stabbed square in the back by pretty blonde Lily. Grown-up reality TV producers would crawl over broken glass to engineer this kind of conflict, but it comes easy in the school yard of TV One’s hugely enjoyable The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds.
The second of a trilogy of TV specials – The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds screened here earlier in the year – the show brings together twelve 5-year-olds from across the UK to spend a fortnight attending a specially-designed school, where Big Brother style hidden cameras capture all the micro-dramas of the classroom.
A pair of teachers are on hand to gently guide the kids into different social situations, while behind the scenes, a doctor and a professor, both developmental psychologists, watch and commentate on the kids’ interactions. Their addition would enrich almost any reality series, but their contributions here are particularly enlightening, shedding light on the endless power struggles and brutal infighting of the classroom.
The diverse range of personalities begin to emerge immediately. One of the strongest is the bright, extroverted Alfie, who instantly gravitates towards the equally imaginative Emily. The pair team up to design a rocket ship. “Eventually I want to go in a rocket and blast off into space,” he tells the show’s interviewer when asked what he wants to do when he grows up.
Alfie’s nemesis is the introverted George, whom he harrasses throughout the show. Poor old George – “I just like being alone,” he confesses tearfully to a teacher – makes the mistake of claiming the sun is made out of lava. This earns unrelenting derision from the prodigiously smart Alfie, who launches into the most creative tirade of insults this side of an episode of Veep: “The sun’s not made out of lava, it’s made out of gas you Billy Bummox!”
The girls find more subtle and complex ways to destroy each other’s confidence. The psychologists are intrigued by the “web of deceit” spun by only child Jaja, who invents a fake brother only so she can withhold his name (“Keelan”) from Ruth, whose only crime was beating Jaja in a dancing competition. One of the girls eventually cracks and spills the beans to Ruth, who tells Jaja, who calls the other girl a “liar”. The whole thing collapses in an inevitable flood of tears.
The deceit and manipulation is balanced out by heartwarming acts of friendship and kindness. Even at their worst, the kids are endearing and effortlessly funny. “If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be,” the interviewer asks George early in the show. “I don’t know,” he sighs, seeming slightly annoyed by the question. “I’m only 5.”
A pair of hour-long specials doesn’t seem like nearly enough – ideally The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds would run for weeks on end over multiple seasons, leaving inferior grown-up reality shows in its dust. Unfortunately 5-year-olds have more important things to be doing with their lives.