It's good to talk
Michael Duffy finds himself moved by a five-part programme dealing with the difficult issues of adolescence
Adolescence can be pretty grim. Children often experience agonies of anxiety, guilt and isolation, un-aware that others around them are struggling with the same emotions and may be longing to share them. Television sometimes heightens the isolation. Tell Me About It! is a direct attempt to use the medium's combination of intimacy and remoteness as a catalyst for group awareness and reassurance.
There are five 15-minute programmes in the series, each of them dealing with a situation that most 11 to 14-year-olds experience directly or indirectly: adolescent crushes, the tyrannies of teenage fashion, eating disorders, parental break-up, the lure of drink and drugs.
Briefly, sometimes movingly, young volunteers talk to camera about their experiences and compulsions. Then there is a brief follow-up discussion - bright young presenter, three or four young people, and the initial speakers - in the studio.
With the limited time available the questions and answers only touch on the issues raised - but that's deliberate. The young people who watch this series will respond to it themselves, either in open discussion or in private reflection and increased self-awareness.
The last point is critically important, and the excellent series booklet - essential reading for teachers - rightly stresses it. Experienced teachers and youth workers will recognise that young people need privacy about their feelings as well as openness, and will make the guidelines quite clear before they use the series. They will stress, too, that although the feelings recounted here are not unusual, they are extreme. Most young people handle these pressures without getting in so deep. In most groups - and in school, half-classes would be the minimum requirement - there will be boys and girls who reassuringly will say just that.
A problem with all television reporting, of course, is the camera's capacity to distort reality. Very occasionally, that happens here. In the studio you sometimes get the feeling that a young person is enjoying the camera too much, and that what we are getting is more performance than reality. It is a pity that this happens more in the first two programmes - stage-struck Jamie, for instance, grieving unconvincingly for Kurt Cobain, or Ryan from Somerset with his green toe nails - than in the three that follow.
But Jamie and Ryan (and Vanessa and Camilla, too) make very watchable television, and that's an absolute requirement. Otherwise, kids would switch off without making time for thinking.
And there is plenty to think about. It's difficult not to be moved, for instance, by 11-year-old Michelle, so badly bullied in school about the way she spoke and the clothes she wore that she began to lose her sight; or by three girls, none of them yet 15, speaking from the sun-lit rooms of an anorexia clinic about the compulsive fasting that sent them there; Amy, who wanted a nice figure so that she could have a boyfriend; Lisa, who didn't think she was thin but had to be tube-fed on admission; Lucy, whose hair had fallen out and whose gums were bleeding. They are bitter about the waif-like super models held constantly before them but, as Amy says with terrible sadness, "It's not just fashion. It could be ... lots of things."
Most moving of all is what may soon be the most common afflic-tion. Mark (14) and Alex (13), clutching her teddy bear, speak about the grief, anger and guilt they felt when their families split up. In the studio afterwards other children try to reassure them. "It's not so bad as it was," Natalie says. "I've been able to cope." Her face, frozen in pain, belies her. The presenter turns to camera. "Talk to somebody," he says. "It's hard to do it - but you feel so much better, and safer."
It's the right advice, and more than justifies the series. In small groups, with time for some of the follow-up activities described, it could make a real contribution to personal and social education and what it stands for. If only adults would watch it as well!
The teachers' booklet and study guide is available for Pounds 4.95 from Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 433333