Reva Klein on a series with children's voices at heart
It's not often you hear something on the radio that makes you stop in your tracks and stays with you for weeks. But it's not often that broadcasters take the sort of risk BBC Radio 4 has taken with Child of our Time, a series of five 45-minute dramatic monologues telling the stories of very different children in very different circumstances around the world. It was a risk worth taking.
The last time a child's voice was heard on the radio giving such a moving, animated, perceptive account of experiences and thoughts was in Spoonface Steinberg, Lee Hall's unique play about an autistic child with terminal cancer first produced in 1997 for BBC Radio, and subsequently made into stage and television plays. So it should come as no surprise that Child of our Time is a collaboration between Hall and Kate Rowland, head of drama for BBC Radio and director of Spoonface Steinberg.
Lee Hall has written two of the five plays and is one of four contributing writers who interviewed children, parents and teachers around the world to gather material for the dramas, directed by Rowland. Taped background noises from each location run through the monologues. The voices we hear are of child actors recorded in London.
Each drama is distinctive in tone and content. Gill Adams was sent to Massakundou refugee camp in Guinea, on the border with Sierra Leone and Liberia, known as one of the most lawless areas in the world. There, amid the squalor, hunger and trauma, she interviewed three girls aged 10, 12 and 13. All had been raped by rebel soldiers; two had seen their parents being murdered. In "Child of the Border", their stories, as interpreted by Adams, have been woven into one as the story of "Sia Mia", told simply, vividly, sometimes lyrically. While she will live the rest of her life with the nightmarish images of the rebels slashing her face and brutalising her body, her spirit is indomitable. Like young girls everywhere, she dances, sings, plays and hankers after pretty dresses.
Stephen Butchard's portrait of Wou Suk in "Child of the City" (to be broadcast next week) is a universe away. Butchard based his fictional character on a nine-year-old child prodigy called Park Young Soo, who lives in Seoul, South Korea. While the most pressing issue for the girls at Massakundou is survival,the central dilemma in Wou Suk's life is how to tread the fine line between arrogance and being true to himself. He's a genius, as he tells the listener matter-of-factly in the first few seconds of the monologue. But he's not allowed to say so by his parents because he'll be seen as arrogant. But if he pretends he isn't, he's a liar. All very frstrating for a laterally thinking, scientific mind like his.
His aim in life is to become a scientist who will discover a drug to make people live forever. Bio-technology is his great love. But so, too, are his parents (he is an only child), and he is determined to make them immortal. The level of dutiful respect he displays towards his elders is captivating. He apologises to his mother for not being elected class president second time around, and is grateful to her for sacrificing her career to raise him. "In Korea," he says, "education allows you to dream. Without education, there are no dreams." A fine sentiment, and one that in no way detracts from his passions for baseball and Harry Potter, and his dreams of, above all, owning a Gameboy.
The final drama, "Child of the Rain", aims to reflect how young people in the north of England see themselves and the world. It will feature a group of young actors including Ben Tibber, who played a Sami child from Lapland earlier in the series. For Rowland, who interviewed young northerners with Lee Hall for the piece, "It's been astounding to hear English children's attitudes, particularly to education. What they're expressing is that real learning and the time and the space it takes for that to happen is outside their reach because of poorly resourced schools. The Brazilian children we interviewed (for last week's broadcast by Katie Hims), twin boys from a suburb outside Rio, cry because they want to go to a good school but are too poor. Other children, some of them with nothing, talk of the importance of learning. But the young people in Lancashire said 'oh, it's so boring'."
Pauline Marshall of Hodgson county high school in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, teaches the Year 9 English pupils who were among Rowland and Hall's interviewees. She found it fascinating to listen to them talk frankly about their lives - something she does not usually get a chance to do. "As a teacher, you don't get an opportunity to ask searching questions or find out children's opinions on issues not related to your subject. When they were asked what it meant to them to be British, for instance, they talked about being proud to beEnglish and northerners. One boy said he was fed up with London-centric news and that the BBC should pay more attention to other parts of the country."
Child of our Time is disappointing in only one respect - the programmes are broadcast at 2.15pm and BBC Radio has no plans to market the tapes or repeat the series at a more accessible hour (although it will be broadcast on the World Service later this year). What a waste of an opportunity for teachers and young people to hear a diversity of voices speaking in such rich language about their lives, thoughts and aspirations.