PREVIEW: TV choice: Children of a lesser good

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The Independent Culture

Wed, 9pm C4


Tues, 9.50pm BBC2

Bad children with good parents are comparatively rare in fiction. We are more often asked to sympathise with victims of parental mistreatment, than to see the parents' point of view on the little monster they have produced, the sort of child that has people in supermarkets muttering: "Why can't they keep that brat under control?" But writer Tony Marchant, himself the father of a child with a mild form of autism, has more reason than most to know that parents are not always to blame for their children's behaviour.

Kid in the Corner, his three-part drama for Channel 4, draws loosely on his own experience, as well as that of other parents of children with special needs, as well as their doctors and teachers. Danny (played by 12-year old Eric Byrne) suffers from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder; though, when the story begins, his parents have not been able to put a name to it. One theme of the film is the battle that parents face until such conditions are "officially" diagnosed. According to Tony Marchant, when I spoke to him last week, "there's a great deal of scepticism about parents trying to explain away their offspring's behaviour."

What the couple do know is that Danny suffers from an inability to assess the consequences of his actions or their effects on others, and a disturbing lack of inhibition. Some of his behaviour might be acceptable in a younger child, who would be expected to grow out of it. But Danny is at an age when he should have learned not to say "f---" to his teacher ("kids with AHDH have a great command of Anglo-Saxon," Marchant says). Danny alienates his parents' and his sister's friends, he causes friction with grandparents, he trashes the kitchen, gets excluded from school, tries to drive the car and is a danger to himself and others. Constantly active - and always doing the wrong thing - he is a vortex that consumes the family's time and leaves no space for anyone else's emotional or practical needs.

Though the drama is about Danny's effect on his family, he remains the central figure in it, and the casting of the child was crucial to the film. "Bille [Eltringham, the director] looked at people from stage schools - the usual suspects," producer Kate Anthony told me. "Then we decided to widen the field, holding workshops in primary schools around the country." Eric Byrne stood out at these because of his lack of self- consciousness and his ability to improvise. "He's got great focus," Marchant says. "He has the knack of knowing how to do very little" - something that you will always hear from film-makers who have worked with children when the experience has been a good one. Byrne's parents were present during the filming, and "we were very concerned," Marchant insists, "that as a child he was not going to be upset by any of the work that we gave him to do." Kate Anthony reinforces this disclaimer.

Viewers may need reassuring: the first episode ends in a horrifying crisis, as Danny's father cracks under the strain. But by the end, Kate Anthony says, we will find that "this is a love story, about reconciliation and hope." For Marchant, the message is that "we can't take for granted the idea that we have unconditional love for our children"; and this applies especially to fathers, whose role is "more ambivalent" than it used to be. None of these messages would come across, however, without the conviction that Douglas Henshall and Clare Holman bring to their parts as Danny's parents, and without Marchant's script, which involves us in a credible family drama, not just a problem play.

Both child behaviour and the crisis of fatherhood happen to be the focus of this week's episode of Talking Cure, the BBC2 series on the Tavistock Clinic. Conor is only three, but he has already learned to be a considerable pain in the neck. One of the difficulties faced by the parents in Tony Marchant's film was their psychiatrist's reluctance to believe their acccounts of Danny's behaviour. With Conor, there is no such problem. He attends his parents' sessions at the Clinic and makes their point for them by lobbing a toy at Dr Wynick's head (he scores a direct hit). Interestingly both the real-life parents in Talking Cure and the fictional ones in Kid in the Corner are anxious about the extent to which therapy means probing their own personalities.

It's all a question, says the Tavistock's Dr Kraemer, of understanding what is going on. "If you go to the surgeon with something you don't like, you ask the surgeon to take it away; if you come to a child mental health clinic, its going-away happens as a result of its fitting-in to a story." And the story this week is two television programmes about child behaviour - or, more precisely, child misbehaviour - which neatly complement one another.