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The future can be prevented

Book Box - Thief!, Age range 7 to 11, Channel 4 Mondays 9.45am, repeated Wednesdays 9.45am. Teacher's guide, Pounds 3.95. Story book Pounds 3.50. Video Pounds 14.99. Educational, Television Company 01926 433333

Bethan Marshall looks at an adaptation of a novel about bullying and prejudice. This term's Book Box begins with a three-part adaptation of Thief! by Malorie Blackman, a novel which tells the story of Lydia Henson, a girl who faces bullying and prejudice when she moves from London to the small northern town of Tarwich.

Book Box, aimed at primary English, brings newly-commissioned and already-published children's fiction to the screen, replacing the long-running Talk, Write and Read. And Thief! is set to add to the already varied diet provided by the series, launched at the beginning of the autumn term.

The story of Thief! begins with the new-girl problems of the central character, Lydia, who is accused of stealing the school sports cup and branded a thief by everyone except for one Asian girl. The situation deteriorates further when she is blamed for a road accident in which another child in the class is involved. The whole community appears bent on driving both Lydia and her family out as they are taunted in the supermarket and their car is vandalised.

Lonely and isolated, Lydia runs off onto the moors, where, in the novel's science fiction twist, she is knocked down by a horse - only to wake up nearly 40 years later in the Tarwich of the future. The town of the future is now a one party state, a war zone, ruled by a tyrant, but Lydia is found by a member of the resistance, which tunnels beneath the town to avoid the tyrant's private army.

The resistance leaders plot to overthrow this system, but Lydia discovers that the tyrant is her own younger brother, Daniel, and she seeks to discover what has turned him into this ruthless overlord. The motive for his behaviour, she learns, is that she was killed in a car accident shortly after the events at the beginning of the story as the family is forced away from Tarwich.

But in a final twist we learn that Lydia did not die, but lives on, disfigured and bitter, fuelling her brother's anger against the resistance, made up, predominantly of the children of her tormentors 40 years ago. They, along with Daniel, who has now seen the error of his ways, help her escape back to the present in order to prevent the future from ever happening.

As this outline suggests, the story is slightly plot heavy and this flaw is aggravated by the fact that the novel is serialised in only three, 15-minute episodes. While there is nothing wrong with dramatising an action-packed, science-fiction tale, the abrupt shifts in character that are required by the plot, have a tendency to trivialise situations which need to be explored in more depth. Yet, for the potential that these offer, the programmes are worth watching.

In the first episode a number of issues are raised - the problem of being new, of peer group pressure and the desire to belong. The spectre of playground bullying is also hauntingly dramatised. Despite the leap into the future in the subsequent episodes, these remain the most interesting questions - why do people bully and exclude certain individuals and how can the victim fight back? The conceit of highlighting the ills of the present by projecting their consequences into the future, is also important.

What gives the story its particular edge, however, is that Lydia and her family are black, while the rest of the community is predominantly white. Whether Malorie Blackman is wishing to imply a racial motive in the town's rejection of the family, or whether it is central to understanding it, or whether it is merely incidental, is unclear from this adaptation. Certainly the only child who stands by Lydia is an Asian girl, but this remains undeveloped, and in the denouement, when the real thief is exposed, she is irrelevant.

Any teacher wishing to use this story would need to consider carefully how to tackle this dimension. The teachers' notes provide excellent material for supporting work on the emotional themes of the book and they look at the way it is structured, but they do not refer to this central feature of the story. Nevertheless, Channel 4 should be commended for bringing to the screen this potentially demanding, if flawed, adaptation of Malorie Blackman's novel and adding to the repertoire that this series is already beginning to provide for primary English.

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