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TV UK, 28 September

Cathy Come Home was discussed in parliament. When I Was 12 is more likely to be discussed in personal development classes at school.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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Single drama is something of a revered form in British TV. There have been many fine television plays over the years, but none is more celebrated than Cathy Come Home, first shown in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot in 1966.

The drama, written by Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ken Loach, is credited with having brought about lasting social change by drawing attention to the plight of the poor and the homeless, through the story of a young northern woman who goes to London and ends up single and homeless with three children.

When I Was 12, shown last Wednesday (26 September, BBC2), clearly has similar ambitions. The play featured an excellent performance by Holly Scourfield. The plot, however, was not only worthy of Brookside (this is not a compliment) but has actually been used on Brookside. The problem goes beyond ineptitude: it has to do with the intention.

When I Was 12 was written and directed by Dominic Savage, already acclaimed for Nice Girl, a single drama about teenage pregnancy. (Savage also got into trouble in 1998 for fiddling with the facts in his documentary Rogue Males.) When I Was 12 is about a 12-year-old girl called Chloe who runs away from home (up north) and falls in with a couple of villains (in, of all places, Hastings) who try to pimp her to paedophiles. Sounds like a morality tale? Savage elaborates: ‘From a child’s perspective it shows how careful you have to be and how easily you can lose control through drink, sex and drugs.’

Hmm. Cathy Come Home was discussed in parliament – When I Was 12 is more likely to be discussed in personal development classes at school. The different focus is reflected in the authors’ research techniques. In Cathy Come Home, Sandford quoted real housing figures, and so on. For When I Was 12, Savage interviewed real runaways. Rather than an angry tract with a clear political agenda, When I Was 12 is a lament for the sorry state of society.

Given Savage’s own bleak agenda, it is no bad thing that the script was developed in ‘workshop sessions’ with the cast of unknown actors, and the dialogue was improvised during filming. On occasions, this worked well. An exchange between Chloe and her 15-year-old fellow runaway Lee, spending the night together in a stolen car, was especially touching. They flirted awkwardly, Chloe smitten by the older boy and Lee enjoying the attention while recognising that 12 really is a little too young.

‘What d’you think of me?’

‘Don’t know….‘What d’you think of me?’

‘Don’t know.’

Chloe’s exclamation that, ‘I’ve given you as much information as you’ve given me’, and the ensuing ribbing, was instantly recognisable, and the highlight of the piece.

The worst dialogue came from the villains: two of the most ridiculous characters ever to have featured in a TV drama. The dopeheaded would-be pimps came across like a couple of second-rate Ali G impersonators, jabbering away in the patois of the Hastings massive. Given that their evil intentions had been signposted from the start, the scene in which they hatched their plot in the foreground while the girls slept behind them was laughably theatrical.

Things were not helped by the appearance of an identikit paedophile complete with greasy comb-over and NHS glasses. For a moment, I thought I was watching a rerun of the infamous Brass Eye special (1). Just as in Brookside though, the intended victim escaped just in time, and as she ran along the seafront (publicity shot…now!), a voiceover spelled out the moral for anybody who had missed it.

Speaking of satire, I ought to mention The Armando Ianucci Show (Channel 4, Thursdays at 10pm). Ianucci is an old collaborator of Brass Eye’s Chris Morris. He has also done lots of comedy writing for Radio 4, but don’t let that put you off. The show has been condemned by some – namely AA Gill and my flatmate – as too clever by half. (In the case of my flatmate this isn’t saying much.)

Despite the obligatory overlong sketches, though, the programme combines political observation with surrealism to good effect. A sketch featuring racist police horses was especially successful. But Ianucci is best on TV itself: his spoof documentary, Walking With Nazis, was a great idea. And I had to sympathise with his nightmare on the theme, ‘except for viewers in Scotland’.

For the record, my flatmate (who claims in public to watch nothing but Ken Loach films and Newsnight) prefers Jackass on MTV. And he complains that I won’t give him the remote control?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics

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