18th February 2000 at 00:00
NATURE BOY. BBC2, Mondays at 9pm

The first episode washard going, but Nature Boy will reward the persistentviewer. Heather Neill talks to its young star.

Lee Ingleby smiles as he swings confidently into the fashionably spruced-up Shepherd's Bush pub and asks for a latte. At 23, he is a good deal more relaxed and chatty than David, the 16-year-old he plays in Nature Boy, the four-part BBC serial about a boy's search for his lost father.

The first episode, broadcast last week and said to acknowledge the influence of Ken Loach's Kes, might not have encouraged teachers to switch on again. During an hour's assault by a storyline that contains child abuse, under-age sex, racism, arson, a dysfunctional foster family, ill-treatment of animals and the drowning of a teenage tearaway, there is also a snapshot of school life that will do little for the Government's teacher recruitment drive.

Poor wide-eyed Miss Owthwaite simply can't cope with her learning support class. While mayhem erupts around her, she asks David, preoccupied with something out of the window, what he is looking at. "Great tits," he announces truthfully, and this is the nearest thing to a joke we are allowed in this bleak account of growing up. Lee, who coincidentally played the lead in a production of Kes at his Lancashire school, says of his fictional classmates: "They are just being kids, but I hope I wasn't like that."

Miss Owthwaite's subsequent attempt to help David share his expertise by organising a school crocodile to his beloved nature reserve ends in disaster when he feels that his territory, his place of refuge, is being invaded.

During the school visit to the reserve, David has to put a young injured deer out of its misery. This scene gave Lee a bit of a shock. "It was already dead, but they wired it up and made it move - and I didn't know it was going to." The series has seen him swim in icy water, milk a cow, catch fish (he also learned to stuff one with herbs, wrap it in paper and pile embers on top to concoct an alfresco meal), make friends with a potentially vicious macaw, fondle a fox cub and crawl underground in spider- infested makeshift tunnels. He was, he says wryly, very fit after three months' filming in Barrow-in-Furness, Middlesbrough, the Midlands and the apple orchards of Kent.

Lee clearly liked being David and it is difficult not to warm to this attractive survivor. The character's relationship with nature is not a sentimental one: he has no qualms about killing and eating a rabbit when he is hungry. And, just like an animal, he makes no moral judgments about the people and circumstances he encounters, although he has a strongly developed sense of fair play. The only hint of sentimentality in Brian Elsley's writing is the scene in which the erstwhile child-abuser weeps on David's shoulder.

Elsley's picaresque story (less happily described in the publicity material as a road movie) takes as its theme David's search for the happy-go-lucky father whoabandoned him at the age of four. Flashbacks of a copiously coiffed Paul McGann doing jolly Dad things with a smiling little David pepper the narrative. Each episode is intended to be self-contained, although anyone switching on for the first time on Monday might be bemused by the flashbacks of a naked girl twisting under water (this is the ill-fated Anne-Marie, David's foster-sister whose wild behaviour leads to her death). Each episode has a different flavour and a distinctly different setting, although it is not made explicit.

More "issues" are taken up in the three remaining films. In the second a successful PR woman married to a Labour MP tries to reconcile loyalty to the polluting concrete factory she represents with her conscience. Her small son Miles, bemused by his ambitious parents' bickering, takes refuge in silence. David, sleeping rough with his rescued fox cub, engages the child in easy conversation before they set the cub free together. There is, incidentally, some excellent acting by children and young people in this series: Samuel Sackville plays little Miles with unforced charm. It is scheduled for post-watershed broadcasting, so it doesn't need to pull its punches but is certain to attract young viewers.

The third film, probably the most successful in dramatic terms, presents some of the contradictions inherent in eco-protesting. In this case, the tunnellers and tree-house dwellers are themselves damaging an ancient woodland while trying to save it from airport expansion. The protesters' idealism is admirable but their thinking is muddled. Typically, David is distanced from the argument, but soon drawn in on a human level. In the previous episode, he met Jenny (Joanne Froggatt) and struck up with her the first warm relationship of his post-childhood years. Here he meets her again, and her presence is a significant strand in the story. The confrontation between the protesters and representatives of the Establishment is convincing and exciting - and in the end, the forces of nature turn out to be more powerful than either side.

In the final film, David meets his much-changed father. Paul McGann's hair and make-up are a bit of a fright, and this time we also have GM crops and, possibly, euthanasia to deal with. But the ending is moving and contrives to suggest a smidgen of hope for the future.

There is an earnestness about the whole series - moments of pleasure are few and far between, and humour is pretty well absent - which chimes well with a certain young view of the bleakness of modern life. By the closing credits we can tick boxes for most of the concerns of the sixth-form debating society. Indeed, it could be set viewing for over-16s searching for a way through the moral maze. They will not find their minds made up for them.

In the end, Lee Ingleby's sincere portrayal of David, and the shots of the English countryside in all its moods, make switching on again worthwhile for survivors of last week's bruising episode.

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