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Praying for a place

Drama on TV tells of parents' lies and bribing a priest to get a school of their choice

IT IS the average, middle class conundrum: how far to go to get your child into the school of your choice? Stuart and Alison, protagonists in Perfect Parents, a one-off drama being screened this Christmas on ITV, are prepared to go further than most.

The programme begins as they scour potential secondaries for 10-year-old Lucy. First, there is the comp where Stuart, played by former Dr Who, Christopher Eccleston, finds a used needle in the bathroom.

Then there is the neighbouring school, where a teacher flees the staffroom in tears.

Finally, they visit St Mary of the Veil, the local Catholic secondary. The sun shines, the birds sing, and little Lucy stares in wonder at the turreted buildings, the neatly turned-out girls and the Olympic-sized swimming pool.

"What's the deal?" Stuart asks. "Do you have to pay?"

"No," says Alison, played by Susannah Harker, best-known for being tipped over a balcony in House of Cards. "You have to pray."

And so they do. While Lucy reads Catholicism for Dummies, Stuart watches Black Narcissus and The Passion of the Christ. The pair practise Communion using Pringles and a baby's rattle. Stuart acquires forged baptism certificates and a bent priest. For pound;4,000, Father Thomas will provide them with references attesting to their lifelong devotion to the church.

Catechism lessons are thrown in free. They are summoned before Sister Antonia, head of St Mary, to prove their commitment. Alison talks eagerly about Lucy's maturity, attributing it to the fact that she is an only child. There is a pause. "Not that we haven't tried for a brother or sister," she adds. "It just doesn't seem to be God's plan."

Despite her parents' nerves, Lucy is accepted to St Mary. "It's brilliant!"

she enthuses on her first day. "They're so strict!"

But, as all good Catholics know, punishment follows sin. The family's avenging angel comes in the form of an aggrieved mother, whose daughter has not been offered a place at the school.

And so, as she begins to question Lucy's religious credentials, the family is drawn into a grim world of blackmail, paedophile priests and "accidents"

that happen late at night. It is all very silly, and writer Joe Ahearne, who previously worked on Dr Who and This Life, is clearly having fun.

Nonetheless, Mr Ahearne insists that he has heard from numerous parents who maintain that only a melodramatic twist or two lie between Stuart's experiences and their own. As Sister Antonia comments: "If this is what parenthood does to people, I feel blessed to be out of it."

Perfect Parents will be shown on ITV1 at 9pm on Thursday, December 28.

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