Definitive Viewing: Bully Girl Tactics

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The Independent Culture
The hardnut members of a girl-gang accost a vulnerable classmate. They taunt her about her recently deceased father, extort money from her, and then shove her down a flight of steps.

Welcome to the world of King Girl, a new, eerily topical BBC Screen Two drama. Its story - gangs enforcing a reign of terror in schools where discipline is spiralling out of control - could have been ripped straight from recent headlines.

The writer of King Girl, a passionate former teacher called Philomena McDonagh, is not surprised that school discipline and bullying has become so newsworthy. "It's part of a huge underlying trend as we move over to a market economy," she argues. "It can only get worse as families move across town to send their children to better schools. Market forces have no commitment to the unsuccessful sink schools left behind. A generation of children will be lost. Why should they behave? What have they got? It's depressing that there's an underclass we're prepared to write off. Ten years ago we'd have been outraged by people sleeping on the street. Now there's a slow, dribbling acceptance of it."

The makers freely admit that a bleak story about a pitiless (girl) bully is never going to net EastEnders-sized ratings. This does not mean, however, that the BBC shouldn't be tackling it at all. "This is Screen Two. The BBC is still allowed to put things out on the minority channel that won't necessarily get 10 million viewers," contends Hilary Salmon, the producer. "Besides, we can't shrink from this kind of world. We like to believe that children are innocent, but they are more capable of cruelty than adults because they're less aware of the consequences of their actions."

The director Sam Miller bolsters the defence. "It's about things we don't want to face: violent children, adolescent sex and difficult and deprived lives."

Salmon and McDonagh, who are both mothers, were originally prompted to write this story by the Jamie Bulger case. "There was such hysteria about the 10-year-old boys," Salmon recalls. "People were threatening to lynch them. It was hard to believe that the boys didn't have a terrible background. And of course they did. All they did was take out on Jamie what was taken out on them. That was the inspiration - to explore the roots of why one child takes out aggression on another."

McDonagh takes up the story. "We talked about demonised children. You read about children who do these things, but you know very little about them. I wanted to look behind the headlines. Every monster has a story."

What she produced was a harrowing account of relentless persecution. Glenn (played with ferocious intensity by Louise Atkins, right), an angry teenager whose parents have virtually abandoned her, can't help picking on the newly bereaved Gail (Cathy Purcell).

Unlike certain politicians, McDonagh is trying to understand rather than condemn. "I'm fascinated by the relationship between the bully and the victim," the writer continues. "The derivation of 'bully' is from the Dutch word for lover. I'm not saying that bullying is ever a good thing, but I'm a writer and interested in the way the bully and the victim release each other from entrapments."

Salmon echoes the theme of sympathy with bullies as much as with the bullied. "Young children have got to be understood," she maintains. "Children are not born evil. Children grow up mirroring the way they are treated. Glenn is just suffering from a lack of love."

The producer concludes: "I hope bullies and children being bullied will see they're not alone. It's important to say - particularly to the victims - 'we know what it's like'."

'King Girl' is showing in BBC2's Wicked Women season on Monday at 9pm