The tragic story of Ecstasy victim Leah Betts is the focus of a BBC anti-drugs series. Reva Klein assesses the possible impact of the programmes. For the next two weeks, BBC Education is presenting a strong anti-drugs initiative to schools, screening three uncompromising films that focus on Ecstasy. It was this drug, taken in a deadly mixture with alcohol and painkillers, that recently claimed the life of 20-year-old Claire Pierce.
This schools television season will see the nationwide network premi re of Sorted: Leah Betts . . . Just an Ordinary Kid, a documentary of how Leah Betts died on her 18th birthday, six months ago. Produced by Granada, Sorted pulls no punches. Home videos of Leah are interspersed with interviews with parents, brother and sister, teachers and friends, including her best friend who bought the Ecstasy for Leah as a birthday treat. There are snippets of re-enactment of the night of Leah's death, the playing of the 999 tape and a vivid recounting of the horrors of Leah's suffering, told by her stepmother, Janet.
"We carried her into here," says Janet, sitting on the couch where they laid Leah as she screamed in agony for her mother as her brain swelled. "There was nothing I could do to help." We also hear father Paul's surprise at discovering this wasn't the first time Leah had taken the drug.
The film is very much about Leah and the void she has left in the lives of her family and friends. But it is also about young people's casual approach to drugs and how unpredictably things can go monstrously wrong. For Janet and Paul Betts, the film is part of a continuing anti-drugs crusade.
The community nurse and former policeman now travel to schools around the country, showing the video (which has been sent to every secondary school) and then running discussion sessions on Ecstasy and other illegal drugs. It's a gruelling task. "We get bad days. Some days a school will put the video on and I'll think 'I can't do this.' But we're out to get across a serious warning. Millions of kids all over the world thought that it was as safe as drinking a lager and nobody told them the other side of the story," says Janet Betts.
Another programme, E for Ecstasy, is presented and researched, like all of the award-winning Lifeschool A-Z programmes, by young people themselves. While its zappy graphics and recurring signature tune can seem self-consciously "yoof-ful", the programme, set in Manchester, is serious in its intent.
The young presenters look at Ecstasy from different angles and have succeeded in talking to everyone from users and dealers to scientists and doctors. While a pop culture pundit suggests that "E celebrates people having a good time, being hedonistic," a dealer admits that he has sold "dud Es" and, when asked if he regrets it, shrugs "not really".
Driving around with a policeman, one of the presenters is told that "E is made by back-street chemists who don't care if young people live or die," which supports the dealer's later view that "it's a mix of speed, acid, smack, all sorts of horrible stuff". Despite knowing this, there are an awful lot of ravers out there who, in the words of one articulate boy, think it's "worth the risk".
Hauntingly, the film ends with a voice-over of researchers warning against the latest evidence of a possible "volcano" about to explode in a few years' time, as the neurological and psychological effects of long-term use emerge. One scientist likens Ecstasy to the fictitious drug Soma in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Another fears that it can trigger off schizophrenia and depression among people with latent predispositions to these conditions.
There's nothing scientific about the drama Loved Up, a collaboration between BBC Education and BBC2's Screen Two. It's all about emotions, loyalty and making decisions. Written by Ol Parker and winner of the Royal Television Society award for best secondary arts schools television programme, it is the story of Sarah, a girl who finds a way out from the domestic grot of living with an alcoholic mother. Her salvation is Tom, until he turns out to be into a different kind of drug, or rather drugs, and soon Sarah finds herself hurtling down a slippery slope of dealing and nihilism. In the end, she decides to face her family responsibilities and turns her back on the hedonistic Tom and his friends. While Loved Up depicts a depressing world in which the good times only happen when you're high, it is very good at focusing on the dilemmas of peer pressure.
The three very different films complement each other and are bound to generate discussion on the culture of Ecstasy and young people's perceptions of it in the classroom as well as behind the bike sheds.
* Young people play the central role in a new anti-drugs information pack from the Metropolitan Police. A free video, entitled That's How It Goes, featuring teenagers talking about drugs is being sent to all London secondary schools.