Hard and fast rules
Young people have to face up to difficult moral questions in a new series of 'Scene'. Ever since DH Lawrence called the Anglo-Saxon obsession with furtive sex the "dirty little secret", secrets have been in bad odour. This latest series of three programmes from BBC's Scene looks at families and their secrets, all of them even more unpleasant than the boxed chocolates of the same name.
In the first, Figure of Eight, set in the Welsh valleys, Sara is the unwilling recipient of a secret about her mother's affair with Uncle Jack. In the second, somewhere in Cockney London, a policeman uses information from his son, Michael, to put away the father of one of Michael's friends. In the third, in the heart of Ireland, Edward feels so demoralised by his father's desertion of the family that he makes up all kinds of secrets to try and imbue himself with magical power. He fails, of course.
Although Figure of Eight does not live up to the high standard viewers expect from Scene, with amateurish camerawork and cardboard acting, the other two are nice juicy soap-style dramas. London and Irish playgrounds are evoked with flashes of detail: the blue-sweatered boys leaning against an Irish stone wall, the lads fighting over a Gameboy near a portable classroom in London. Recognisable living-rooms, appropriate cars, even the birthday cake like a football for a 12th birthday it's all spot-on.
The 30-minute plays are packed with incident as we have come to expect from this kind of social realism drama. In fact, I expected to hear the Casualty theme come up after Spy in the Cab, written by Nigel Williams, author of The Wimbledon Poisoner.
Interestingly, all three dramas portray children as vulnerable and damaged. Sara in Figure of Eight overcomes the trauma of having had to lie for her mother and be blamed by her father and comes to grips with her own grown-up relationship. Michael in Spy in the Cab is used by his father to achieve the promotion in the police force for which he has always longed and the separation from his alcoholic wife for which she has always longed.
In Edward No Hands (written by Dermot Bolger), Dad leaves Mum after failing to teach Edward to "be a man" and ride his bike with no hands. As Edward grows up, this is pretty much the picture all the way until he meets a nice girl. Still, he blows that by untrue boasting to impress some bullies, is distraught to realise that so far from his Dad being about to come back, he has moved to England and decides that the only way to make a real impression on life is to kill himself. So, after a totally unsatisfactory telephone conversation with the Samaritans, he does.
Teenagers watching this doom and disaster might like to ask whether other solutions are possible. Do people have to stay damaged or can they gain strength? Teenage male suicide is steeply on the rise and Edward's mother is right to deplore the "stupid, stupid waste". It would be good for a teacher and a class to explore what it might mean not to waste your life.
Similarly, although Figure of Eight contains too many abrupt reversals to be entirely plausible, the mother's mixed feelings as she tries to hang on to her lover and relieve her daughter's sense of guilt about the marriage break-up, allow viewers to consider responsibilities in a family. Was the mother wrong to lay the burden of a secret on her child? Was she right to stay with her husband while deceiving him? Should one seek happiness at all costs? And if not, why not?
In Spy in the Cab, the child is torn between mixed loyalties. He is a policeman's child, friends with the criminal's child. Furthermore, the policeman is unlikeable and the criminal is full of charm. What the criminal does is wrong yet being with him feels right, all warmth and humour, while being with Dad feels prickly and wrong. What is right and what is wrong? Are right and wrong more important than loyalty to a peer? Lots of young people don't think so.
There is a telling incident in Spy in the Cab. Michael and Kevin are walking through a run-down shopping centre with Kevin's dad. Michael sees someone being attacked in an alley. "Shouldn't we help?" he asks. "No," replies, Kevin's Dad. "Best to keep your nose out, don't get involved."
Well, class, is that right? Uncomfortable stuff, this morality, especially when you have to work out the answers for yourself.