Drama that pulls no punches

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Domestic attacks account for one in four violent crimes. Elaine Williams previews the BBC's two-week focus on those who suffer

Hitting Home season

BBC, February 15-23

It could be your street, it could be mine. It could be your mate, your pupil. If we think somebody is being beaten up at home, what do we do? Especially if they are begging us not to tell anybody.

This is the dilemma at the heart of Behind Closed Doors, a forceful drama for CBBC in which Holly Phillips (Tilly Gerrard), a teenager whose family has just moved to a "respectable" semi-detached neighbourhood, finds herself having to look out for Sam, the cheeky 11-year-old boy next door, whom she suspects is being beaten by his mother's partner.

Holly is a typical 15-year-old girl starting out in a new area at a new school. The last thing she wants is to be followed around by a nipper, and she is irritated when Sam (Aaron Johnson) constantly invades her personal space and doesn't want to go home. But her irritation turns to suspicion and concern when she hears bumps, shouts and Sam's cries of pain through her bedroom wall. The Phillipses do not want to get involved in the "domestic" next door; they had been forced to move because they'd spoken out on a previous - and ultimately tragic - occasion. And Sam doesn't want Holly to say anything because he fears for his mum, Nicky (Caroline O'Neill), who is also being knocked about by her partner, Joe (James Thornton). But an increasingly violent train of events draws in all parties, including a teacher at the children's school.

Behind Closed Doors is powerfully and sensitively realised and acted and pulls no punches. Written by Tim O'Mara and produced by Diana Kyle, a former teacher, in consultation with Childline, Barnardo's and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, it is central to Hitting Home, a special BBC season (February 15-23) that turns the spotlight on domestic violence.

One in four women and one in six men will experience violence in their homes during their lifetime. The Home Office estimates that between one in three and two in three children in homes where the mother is being abused are also at risk, and of the 100,000 children who run away from home every year, around four out of five are escaping family conflict. According to this data, domestic violence accounts for almost one in four violent crimes, and around two women each week are killed by a current or former partner. But less than 35 per cent of domestic violence is reported to the police. These shocking statistics, in which domestic violence can be seen to cut across age, gender and social class, prompted Seetha Kumar, head of BBC Lifeskills, the department that has co-ordinated Hitting Home, to take action.

Meanwhile, the Government plans to publish a consultation paper this spring setting out proposals to prevent domestic violence. As well as informing the wider public, Hitting Home aims to provide encouragement and support for those affected by domestic violence (backed by a confidential helpline), and to "break down taboos and abolish myths", say the programme makers. "Behind Closed Doors is crucial to the Hitting Home schedule because it brings the issue to children in a careful way," says Diana Kyle.

Dr Ute Navidi, head of policy at Childline, commends the realism in the drama and says that, like Sam, children who suffer domestic abuse often feel guilty, ashamed and embarrassed, and "surround themselves with a cloak of protective silence".

As in the drama, schools can play a crucial role in identifying problems and giving support. Dr Navidi says: "Every child reacts differently and it is often difficult to read the signs - especially if there is no obvious bruising - but any sudden change in behaviour should be followed up."

David Bromfield, presenter of BBC1's The Morning Show, was, until last year, a science and IT teacher at Archbishop Tenison's school in the London borough of Lambeth. He, too, believes schools can play a fundamental role in abuse cases. He says: "Kids will often talk to teachers, especially if, like me, they are involved in running clubs and school trips. If you are a form tutor, you may spend two or three hours a day for several years with the same children. It is difficult not to take a personal interest in them and to spot when they are troubled." But he says schools with a high staff turnover and heavy reliance on supply teachers may be less able to help pupils in this way.

Other programmes across television and radio linked to Hitting Home include a special edition of Newsround for CBBC in which presenter Becky Jago meets children who have been victims of abuse at home. Storylines have also been written into Casualty and Neighbours, while a documentary, Trevor and Little Mo, looks back at the drama that gripped EastEnders viewers last year as Little Mo (Kacey Ainsworth) fought to free herself from her abusive partner.

Actors, writers and producers talk about the research that went into the characters, and their own and the audience's responses. Panorama investigates how victims of domestic violence obtain justice, and another documentary, Dangerous Love - tales of domestic violence follows families and individuals - abused and abusers - as they struggle with violence in the home, and looks at how to break such behaviour patterns.

Behind Closed Doors, CBBC, Sunday, February 16, 5.30pm. The Get Real section of www.bbc.co.ukcbbc offers help to younger viewers affected. The website www.bbc.co.ukhittinghome provides further details plus a list of relevant conferences and contact numbers. The Hitting Home freephone advice line on 08000 934 934 is live until March 28, 7.30am to midnight

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