Turning 7/7 into a modern morality play
A children's drama about the London bombings is spoiled by the tick-tick-tick of politically correct boxes.
That Summer’s Day, CBBC, 7 July 2006
‘I’m not having your holy war on my bus!’
If I was given this line and told to guess where it came from, my best guess would be some late-night wacko comedy moment where Blakey from the 1970s TV sitcom On the Buses is revived in 2006 as a bus inspector in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Stranger things have happened in the twilight zone of Channel 4.
I’d be wrong, though, because this line is based on fact. The holy-war-on-the-bus comment came from the Children’s BBC drama That Summer’s Day, which recounted the lives of children in one London school on 7 July 2005, the day of the London bombings that cost 56 lives. The drama was based on interviews with school students in Hackney about their experiences and feelings on and following 7/7; apparently a bus conductor really made that comment to a group of Muslim schoolgirls. It was, as producer Hannah Pescod explained, ‘inspired by one Muslim girl’s story.’
I can’t shake the feeling that there is something sham about the holy-war-on-the-bus line. This is partly my frustration that this ridiculous line found its way into a programme that had the potential to be an engaging and honest account, made for children, about how a tragic and senseless event was seen by them and affected their lives.
That Summer’s Day looks like the end product of two trends in children’s TV that have merged to undermine the artistic integrity of the work in question: the inability simply to tell the tale without political moralising and heavy-handeded ‘positive messaging’, coupled with the fetishisation of children as the true voice of society, unsullied harbingers of a new political dawn.
Executive producer Mark Redhead comments: ‘Children are, by definition, the future and how they react and respond to the events will have an impact on the way our society develops and copes with the challenges ahead.’ Yes, of course we want to help our children to understand and cope with the world. But we should also remember that they’re children, and that it is the reactions and responses of adults which, at this moment in time, will determine how we cope with challenges ahead.
This is a sign of the times, and while That Summer’s Day has much to recommend it, particularly to its target audience, the production team’s besotted reliance on the tales of children. together with their determination to hammer home a morality tale about bullying and fear. is a recipe for clunkiness in an otherwise well-produced drama.
Take the holy-war-on-the-bus line. When the bus conductor sees one of the main characters, Ayesha, trying to get on to the bus with her sisters in the end-of-the day scrum, he leaps out of his cabin and tells them he’s not letting them on because ‘I’m not having your holy war on my bus’. Ayesha and her sisters are recognisable as Muslims because they wear the hijab. The bus driver is recognisable as an idiotic bigot because we only see him for a minute shouting at kids before he drives off.
Even if the holy-war-on-the-bus line is verbatim, and of course it may well be, its inclusion in the drama conforms to the post-7/7 script of fear of Islamophobia. After the bombings, there was widespread fear that white working-class bigots would rise up and attacks Muslims. There may have been some isolated incidents (such as the exhcnage between a bus conductor and a Muslim schoolgirl) but there was none of that predicted pogrom against Muslims.
This set piece, complete with its black-and-white villains and heroes – or bullies and victims, to bring it up to date – builds up to the denouement of the drama: the confrontation with nasty bully Kelly. Boy, is she nasty. Having tormented Ayesha throughout the day, stealing her phone, threatening to throw her bass guitar out of the window and commenting that the bombings are exciting, she turns on Ayesha after missing her bus. In turn, Kelly’s best friend Marie – who has been slowly drawing the conclusion that perhaps her mate is just too much like Little Britain‘s Vicky Pollard to be tolerated – gives her a piece of her mind. Well, what she actually does is give her a Department for Education stamped-and-approved ‘Don’t Suffer in Silence’ sermon about fear and not just taking something because you want it.
If only the characters had not been sequestrated as ciphers in a morality play, there was opportunity for some real humour here. When Kelly challenges Marie by saying ‘You think I’m stupid, don’t you?’, it would have been great if Marie had turned round and said, ‘Well, yeah actually’. But that wouldn’t have fit with the pre-ordained script.
Too often the programme makers seemed to be hiding behind a kids’ story in order to tick a politically correct box about ‘bullying being wrong’. I wonder if this was also the case in one of the most far-fetched moments in the drama. When disaffected Ben goes into London to find his dad who is missing at Liverpool Street station, he is followed by new lad Jack. This is a lovely sequence for most of the time – the shrugging ‘well come along if you want to’ banter between Ben and Jack growing into a warm dialogue between two boys.
And then something bizarre happens. The boys go into a chip shop and ask for directions. They are taken under the wing of a modern-day Fagin – a bad ‘un from the start, with his mockney-menace accent and tattooed neck. He takes the boys off the beaten track and then tries to mug them. Adults mugging lone children? This cannot have been a very common experience on 7/7, when most people in London were helping and comforting one another. Perhaps this scenario was told to the production team by a group of children – but again, the real point of this sequence is to tick another PC box about child safety.
There is good stuff in That Summer’s Day: the friendship between Ayesha and her saxophone-playing pal, Mike, who suggests that it may be the French who have bombed London because they are jealous that we have won the Olympics, while Ayesha rolls her eyes and tells him not to be daft; Marie’s dawning realisation that she has different interests and opinions from the person who is her best mate (a common experience as a teenager); the sympathetic teachers and the sense that this is an ordinary day disrupted; the delightful Jack ending the day pinning the Olympic flag to the wall and Ben’s quiet but sincere reconciliation with his father.
The next time that the BBC or some other children’s TV producers make a flagship drama for children, they should concentrate more on this kind of characterisation and dialogue, and leave the moralising at home.
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