Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Calum Henderson: Academic avalanche makes smart viewing

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Doco unravels vast findings from Dunedin study following 1000 babies born in 1972.
The experts agree that the foundation for life is set early. Photo / Supplied
The experts agree that the foundation for life is set early. Photo / Supplied

In 1972, a University of Otago Medical School study started following the lives of every baby born in Dunedin for a year, and has continued to follow them for the rest of their lives. They are, according to an ambitious, four-part documentary series available now on TVNZ OnDemand and starting on TV One next Tuesday, "the 1000 most studied people in the world".

In the 40 years since the Dunedin Longitudinal Study began, it has been responsible for "on average" a new scientific paper or journal article every 13 days.

The 1500-plus papers have uncovered an "avalanche of information", which episode one of Why Am I? "the first TV series made about the study" boldly attempts to wrangle.

Dunedin's children are regarded as an accurate predictor of life in any westernised nation, and the study's findings are used by governmental policy-makers around the world.

The documentary, while made in New Zealand, has this international audience firmly in mind. Dunedin is described unsentimentally as "a small city in New Zealand" by narrator Susie Ferguson (RNZ's Morning Report), whose BBC-educated voice guides us through the series.

A great deal of care has been taken in scripting the documentary so that it never gets lost in a dull swirl of talking heads. Ferguson's narration is smart but accessible, a rare treat for those who hold up the likes of David Attenborough as the benchmark for quality intelligent television. Why Am I? is on that same level; it feels sort of like a macro-level companion to the famous 7 Up documentary series.

Much of the talking is given over to various professors, both from Otago and overseas. Study director Professor Richie Poulton is bright and engaging and wants to know, "why does one child grow up to be a burglar and end up in the klink, and another grow up to be a concert pianist?" Professor Terrie Moffitt, an American whose accent has been corrupted by New Zealand vowel sounds, studied antisocial behaviour in boys from Dunedin and found almost identical patterns in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. What they all agree is that the early years are vital. "It starts out with something as small as delayed speech," Moffitt explains, "and gathers force over the life course."

The first episode introduces five basic personality types identified in participants as 4-year-olds, which were shown to persist all the way into adult life. By age 34, well-adjusted (40 per cent), confident (28 per cent) and reserved (15 per cent) children were more likely to be happily married with friends, careers, and better health than those identified as undercontrolled (10 per cent) or inhibited (7 per cent).

Why does one child grow up to be a burglar and end up in the klink, and another grow up to be a concert pianist?
Professor Richie Poulton

The study is strictly confidential, so none of the individual participants appear in the documentary. Instead, examples are found both locally and around the world. AJ Hackett appears as an example of a confident personality type, while the inhibited personality type is illustrated by 'hikikomori' " young Japanese men who withdraw from society, some not leaving their homes for years at a time. "I have everything I need here," one says from his apartment. "The world is not for me."

This scene, like the rest of the footage in the documentary, is beautifully shot. At one point, a cutaway of people boarding a bus outside Farmers " a particularly dreary stretch of Dunedin's main street " manages to look somehow elegant, like a scene from a real international city.

While most of the people born in Dunedin between 1972 and 1973 no longer live there, participants are flown back from around the world every few years, and those who can't make the trip have the study come to them. Travelling interviewer Sean Hogan went to prisons, institutions and hospitals around the world during the last phase of research. He recalls one participant, who has spent most of his life in prison, saying about the study: "I haven't done very much in my life, but I've done this."

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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