TV Reality – The Dangers and the Opportunities
Bernard Ashley considers the issues facing the writer of television for children.
`My dad hit my mum against the wall and made the cat miaow.’ That’s a seven-year-old girl giving her news to a teacher in school last week. `She’s got a big mark down her face.’
I heard about `Peter’, who had scalded his hand. He was doing something for his mother. For the past five years since her divorce he had lived with her and his doting grandparents; he was pouring out her hot water bottle. His hand slipped. `Serves you bloody-well right!’ his new stepfather told him. `Teach you to be more careful.’
Two incidents for two children in the same week, between bouts of watching the television. Behind the front doors of their homes some children see things and hear things and have things done to them – as the world increasingly knows – which we would prefer to think don’t happen.
They are 100 percent members of our society, not a part of some protected minority sect. In my own childhood, while we read our adventure yarns, the bombs missed only the children who had been evacuated from the cities, as they killed children indiscriminately in Tripoli less than a year ago. And was Auschwitz for the over-sixteens’?
Are we, the creators of story for children, in the business of evacuation’? Making sense of the world requires repeated experiences. We can classify only when we’ve had experience of several or many. Even real experiences, on their own, are an impossible base for generalisation. Daddies hitting mummies are not the way things are when it happens only once (children hitting children is much more of a truth) but repeated and repeated and repeated – and the paper pattern can be cut out in the steel. The view of the world we grow up with is the one we grow up among. And the nearer television comes to home, the more similarities there are and the closer to reality they come, the more those television images will form part of real life 3D experiences, and the more they count in the growing process. And the older the child, the clearer the television experience, the more crucial it becomes.
From about the age of 12, when the mind can classify and generalise, the young take stances. They begin to decide where they stand, and are beginning to see why people are what they are. They see things from other people’s points of view. This ability is a marker of beginning to be mentally mature. And some people – and they can’t always help it – never ever reach that intellectual stage.
This is the stage of child development with which I’m particularly concerned in this context. With these older children we will want to share ideas and experiences, argue a case, show what evil is before it’s conquered by good. Not to do so is to deny their needs. It isn’t what we include, I suggest, it’s how we include it.
Going back to Peter who was scalded and his stepfather. I am sure that Peter hates that man as Patsy Bligh hated her step-father, Eddie Green, in my Break in the Sun. So I explored in the book, as Alan England reflected in the television dramatisation, why that man was what he was. In a moment of reminiscence, to which both book and television had built, he told of his childhood and of his own hateful father.
‘It was like this – an’ you might cotton or you might not, but this is ‘ow it went -‘ Eddie Green leant forward with his hands dangling across his knee. ‘My old man and me, we didn’t ‘it it off, right’? Weren’t the best of friends. I was a bit on the small side, an’ ‘e was a great mountain of a man.’ Eddie Green snorted. ‘No one ever ‘ad an argument with my old man on ‘is own. So I didn’t come off too strong, you know what I mean? The old lady stuck up for me now and again, but there’s no two ways about it, to ‘im I was bad news. An’ like it ‘appens. the more I tried, the worse I got …’
His eyes were half closed, and now he could have been telling all this to Kenny, or just explaining some memory to himself.
… We’re digging the garden an’ I can’t keep my end up, I get one row done to ‘is ten. So ‘e ain’t pleased. ‘E gets me painting the ceiling while ‘e’s doing a door, and I can’t keep going fast enough to keep the edge alive. It ends up all blotchy. Again, ‘e ain’t pleased. The van won’t start an’ I’m no good for pushing, an’ my feet don’t reach the pedals for letting in the clutch. All that sort of thing.’ His voice went very low. ‘Some days I ‘ated ‘is guts so much I was planning ‘ow I was gonna kill ‘im in the night. I’m praying to God for the strength. But I know ‘e’d wake up an’ ‘ave me. So I got used to letting it out in other ways…
Kenny sat with his head back and tried to keep an expressionless look on his face.
. . . Yeah, after one of those do’s I’d clear off on my bike an’ do stupid things – like deliberately go swimming when the water was dangerous, or go chasing across the railway line so close to a train I can’t risk a slip – or I go up the towers an’ jump till I feel better.’ He tapped Kenny on the knee as if he thought he wasn’t listening. ‘See, the way them towers was built, a little kid could jump across near the middle, where they nearly touched: the jump next to the gangway’s only about two feet across. But as you go further sideways so your jump ‘as to get bigger an’ bigger to get you over. Some days when I was in a real state I’d jump along the three of ’em, hell or nothing, as wide, or wider, as I reckon I can push myself, where it’s over on to the next one or down fifty feet to the ground. An’ I’ve proved something, see? So I feel a bit better, just being alive, I s’pose, an’ off on my bike before the foreman catches me …’
Kenny measured the towers inside his head – Eddie Green would definitely have killed himself if he’d missed his jump.
. See, I’m so bloody miserable I’m either gonna kill myself doing it, or prove to myself it don’t matter a toss what my old man thinks of me, because I’ve got guts …’
Kenny’s chins concertina’d in a slow nod. Eddie Green wasn’t on his own. He could think of more than one who felt like that …
The character who changed the most in that story was Eddie, because Kenny, by understanding him, helped the man to understand himself.
What we’re getting away from in realistic television is the stereotyped image of goodies and baddies, suggesting instead that people behave in certain ways for certain reasons. But none of this works if it’s written as medicine. The issue must emerge from the story, not the story from the issue. Patsy Bligh didn’t wet the bed to bring comfort to bed-wetters (although she did), nor did Eddie Green have a poor childhood to help my Peter at school. Both issues arose out of the needs of the story. The other way around and it’s a bit like the BBC’s famous `Grove Family’, the first British TV soap, when government advice was written into the scripts (and I’ve seen some pretty heavy `messages’ on Brookside and EastEnders). I really don’t know whether the Grange Hill drug-taking issue grew naturally out of the story or not; but drug-taking exists – and that’s another point. Children at this mature stage of mental operations know when we’re pretending things don’t exist. Sometimes they accept the pretence. Sometimes children welcome us not knowing about the secret moments of their lives. At other times they don’t, and perhaps we lose our credibility as programme makers and writers when we leave it to soaps like EastEnders to show things sort-of the way they really are. Two hours in the early evening is all that separates Grange Hill from Coronation Street. And EastEnders regularly features in the top three of children’s viewing, five to fifteen. The fiction is very ‘real’ for some. As another seven-year-old said in school (having watched Angie’s attempted suicide on East Enders), ‘She took all them tablets, like my mum did when my dad run off.’ Having lived through the real thing, is that child any worse off for seeing it on television’? One part of me says she might draw comfort from it; another says the reality of both real and television situations still isn’t understood; yet another says I’d he happier if we could shape that experience for her to enable her to grow from it.
I believe it’s vitally important that story should not shirk the realities of life, majority or minority life. Like the caveman, everyone needs to rehearse life’s strategies; we all need to pre-hear the voices. But we must always shape – in hope. When, in Running Scared the horrible Brian threatens, or Elkin himself, when we’ve seen the effect their criminal ways of life have on themselves and on others, we need to know, if society is to survive, that there is a Detective Inspector McNeill who has a voice as well.
‘It’s a weird thing how people’s first reaction isnae “murder-polis!” but “keep it quiet. keep it under y’ hat”. An’ I never can figure out why. People think the villains o’ this world hold all the aces . . .’ And here he stretched his palm, like a boy for the strap – ‘But you show me a wee handful o’ guts, a small enough dose of courage to sit on a kiddie’s hand, an’ I can do the rest.’ And his hand went to his heart, meaning it. ‘That’s a solemn promise, mae friends.’
But McNeill’s message is meaningless – and this is the point of shaping-in some earlier menace – unless we’ve got something to compare it with. You can rarely draw any satisfaction from ‘good’ conquering ‘evil’ if you don’t know what the evil is. As with plants in the soil, you won’t get sturdy growth without getting your hands a bit dirty.
Growth, too, is about realising something new. Not only seeing something from another person’s point of view but beginning to understand it. And that, of course, isn’t only for the young. When I read this scene from the last episode of Running Scared to parent audiences I always sense a new awareness: Narinder and Paula are on a class visit to the Thames Barrier.
‘I feel really proud of that!’ Narinder started, as they glided between two Barrier piers.
Paula came back from wherever she’d been herself. ‘Eh? Proud of what?’
‘Of that.’ Narinder pointed at the visible parts of the huge circular gates, already covered in green to the high water mark. ‘This Barrier.’ She shifted on the bench to look at Paula. ‘Think of all them coaches parked next to ours. People come from all over the world to look at this – an’ we can see it any old time from the top of our school, you know that’?’
Paula nodded. `Yeah, I s’pose it is something.’
`You s’pose it is?’ Narinder was too loud, had to drop her voice. ‘Listen, girl, sometimes coming back from the cash ‘n carry over Hounslow I go past the Houses of Parliament in my dad’s van, past Downing Street, round Nelson – and I look at all the people who’ve saved up years to see all that – things I can see any old day of the week…’
‘Yeah’?’ Paula looked surprised.
Not for the first time Narinder felt like taking hold of her friend’s shoulders and shaking the daylight out of her. ‘See! Even you!’ she explained. ‘You still don’t think of me as belonging here, do you? Not really. When’s your birthday – August i’n it?’
Paula was listening now: definitely surprised by Narinder suddenly going off like this. ‘August the second,’ she said.
‘Right! Well, mine’s the first of June.’ Narinder let it sink in for a few seconds, stared into Paula’s bewildered eyes. ‘Which means I’ve been a Londoner two months longer than you! Never thought of that, have you?’ It was one of those rare moments, with Paula staring, and slightly shaking her head. ‘It’s still bloody hard for you to get hold of, isn’t it? Same as most of these . . .’ Narinder waved her arm around the cabin. ‘What is it’? This?’ She jabbed a finger into the skin of her cheek. `Or this?’ – waving a flat, wrapped chapati from her packed lunch.
Still Paula was staring, thinking. ‘I dunno,’ she said at last. ‘Both, I s’pose, bein’ honest. But you’re my mate!’ she suddenly threw in, as if that made it all right.
Narinder felt her eyes blaze, she stabbed her fingers as she made her painful points. ‘Paula, there’s people that side of the river won’t have nothing to do with people this side, there’s the East End and South London always at one another’s throats -‘ she dropped her voice to little more than thinking aloud -‘but wouldn’t they join hands quick, some of ’em, to see me shut up in that plane to Jullunder? Eh?’
Paula shrugged, tried to excuse herself from the implications of what Narinder was saying.
‘Can’t you see, Paula, I’m not here courtesy of them – or because I’m your mate. I’m here because I belong!‘
‘All right!’ Paula shouted back.
‘It’s not courtesy of no-one! This is my Thames Barrier an’ all!’
Paula laughed, the old laugh. ‘Oh, do leave off! You just heard how much it cost’?’ A try at a laugh, part of what the long friendship had always been about.
But Narinder gave it no more than a wiped smile: because somehow they were past all that, they weren’t in the business of covering cracks any more.
One in three children between five and fifteen in the U.K. saw that episode of Running Scared. For that scene alone I’m glad I made friends with the box. Unlike television anywhere else in Europe our children’s programmes take life on, deliberately don’t pretend there is no racism, no villainy, no depths. How angry we were when adults spelt the letters of words we knew across our faces. ‘Has he been d. .r. .y..?’ The children of that generation, the parents and the grandparents of today, have got their country in the worst social mess Britain has ever seen. But it’s not too late to help today’s children growing up, is it?
One of the dangers in all this business is claiming to know. All I have to offer is my opinion – I haven’t a penn’orth of proof. The way people turn out is far too subjective a concept to assess. And is that our business anyway? We, the people who write books and scripts can only hope to shape reality and lay it before our readers as the stuff from which growth might come. And then, please, not as medicine: never talking in doses, only ever in rich, generous helpings. •
This is a shortened and edited version of an address given by Bernard Ashley to the bi-annual workshop, of the European Broadcasting Union in Paris.
Break in the Sun (Puffin, 0 14 03.1341 9, £1.95) was adapted for BBC Television by Alan England in 1981. Bernard Ashley wrote both the television series (BBC 1986) and the book version of Running Scared (Julia MacRae, 0 86203 238 5, £7.50 and Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.2079 2, £1.95).