In 2019 BBC Three started filming a documentary about male fertility – specifically that of Love Island star Chris Hughes, and his elder brother Ben.
Human fertility, especially male fertility is a rarely broached subject on terrestrial TV. But the producers behind 'Me, My Brother and Our Balls' have managed to tackle it head-on, and while at times the show was lacking in detail and particulars, the use of humour and a warm family setting helped to make this difficult and sensitive topic quite watchable.
The show centres on Chris and immediately we're shown footage from ITV's This Morning, when Chris bared all to the nation while undergoing a testicle examination from the show's on-air doctor. Chris points out that in no time at all the clip had gone viral and was watched by millions. Male sexual health is clearly a popular subject. Either that, or Chris' reproductive anatomy is, at least!
But it's actually his brother, Ben, who is the real star of the show. Not only did Ben discover he had a lump on his testicles, which required immediate surgery, but it transpires that both brothers have fertility issues – with Ben's being more severe. So, in just the first few minutes the programme established its intention to tackle both male fertility and male sexual health.
We're invited to sit down to breakfast with the Hughes family, where Chris discusses his testicles and his condition, a varicocele, that can lead to fertility issues. A varicocele, similar to a varicose vein in your leg, is an enlargement of the veins within the scrotum and is a common cause of low sperm production and decreased sperm quality. His brother throws in that with or without sperm, sex is still sex. 'What's the difference between sex and love making?,' asks his dad. 'Something you've forgotten all about', replies his mum.
'I wanna have a family one day, innit', says Chris - right before he meets his mates down the pub. Lots of facts and figures are thrown about between them, and they are at least, more or less, discussing male fertility and sexual health. But at times, the dialogue seems like it's trying too hard, feels unnatural and very clichéd.
It's often Chris who talks to us about male infertility and lifestyle changes that can improve it. However, he seems quite keen to share with us just how well-endowed he is in the sexual reproductive area. But again and again, it's his brother Ben that actually stops us eye-rolling, draws us in, makes us listen and really genuinely feel for him.
Even when Chris's girlfriend Jesy Nelson is in front of the camera, I felt it more difficult to connect with them as a couple, compared to his much quieter, much sweeter brother, Ben and his partner, Olivia Round.
And it's Ben who has a much more serious problem. Not only did Ben have to undergo surgery to have a testicle removed, but his testicles were below average in terms of size and production capability and the one remaining after surgery is struggling to produce even a minimum size sample.
There's a moment when Ben and Olivia are discussing how near impossible it might be for them to biologically produce their own children. It had me welling up and feeling very moved for them. But at no point are other parenting options such as IVF, sperm selection, donor sperm or even adoption are mentioned. Even the fertility consultant that tells Ben how difficult it will be for him to father his own children, fails to point out other routes to parenthood.
I understand this is a show about fertility and sexual health, but there is an emphasis throughout on the desire to become a parent. As such, I feel as though the programme should have mentioned other options. The show could have left millions of people thinking 'That’s it! We're done for. There's nothing else we can do.' – when in fact there's lots you can do. It's just a shame the programme didn't mention any of it.
Ben and Olivia's story is genuinely upsetting, and it's impossible not to be moved by it. There's a good chance their story alone will be enough to prompt thousands, or even millions of men, to check their fertility and sexual health, which is a definite positive outcome of the programme. But it's a shame it failed to explore, or even just mention, other routes to parenthood.