Robert Hanks' Television Review

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The Independent Culture
"HEAVEN LIES around us in our infancy!" Wordsworth wrote. "Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing boy." Most of the children followed in Eyes of a Child (BBC1) could have passed a pretty tough exam in shades of the prison-house. For a year, taking as their cue Tony Blair's pledge about child poverty, Kate Blewett and Brian Woods followed children in the rougher parts of England's inner cities as they went about their daily business: skiving school, watching TV, kicking a football around, breaking windows, getting into fights, running away... Precious few clouds of glory being trained here. The result was an impressively worrying and well-intentioned film, but one that was a little too muddled to create quite the sense of outrage it seemed to be aiming for.

In part, that was because of the nature of the deprivation they suffered. The film opened on a Bradford council estate where eight-year-old Kayley and Becky lived, in a house that overlooked a devastated, seemingly bombed- out wasteland; but nothing else matched up to the post- nuclear landscape which confronted them. For the most part, the children we met lived in surroundings notable mostly for their lack of interest - grey and insufficient places, hopeless rather than desperate.

And the same was true of other aspects of their lives. Few of the children had been subjected (so far as you could tell) to real viciousness, the kind that makes the papers. But for nearly all of them, life seemed to be pervaded by a scary level of casual, unremarkable violence - Kayley, Becky and their sister Cordie were seen putting the boot in to a doll's head and fighting with their delinquent cousin while their mother giggled. Down in Leicester, David, aged 11, was seen threatening a smaller boy who had supposedly hit his brother Mikey at school; when he ran out of people to fight on Mikey's behalf, he had a go at Mikey himself. In Sheffield, a boy talked about what he considered an acceptable level of violence: "When you get smacked all the time you just get used to it... I mean, I'm not saying that I'm tough or owt, but I can take some beatings."

They weren't all obviously financially deprived, either - David and Mikey's house looked pretty comfortable, in fact. But from what we could see of their family life (David was eventually thrown out of the house by his mother), you would have to be an extreme sort of materialist not to see that this was a grinding sort of poverty.

As the film went on, things began to get worse. Kayley and Becky's mother talked about her drug habit, while the children chipped in with little phrases they had picked up from grown-up conversations: "You always need more, don't you, Sharon?... They're on it, they can't get off it." They got evicted from their house. David talked about how he had helped to beat up a teacher, who had suffered brain damage; and Mikey tried to run away. Adam from Portsmouth, aged 15, talked cheerfully about sustaining brain damage from regular solvent abuse - he reckoned he had about 30 per cent of his brain left, but now that a friend had died he'd kicked the habit. But still the rhythm of the film seemed to suggest an unwillingness to go for easy shocks.

Unfortunately, this was contradicted by other aspects of it, notably the headline statistics that flashed up between scenes: a teacher is physically attacked in school nearly every day; 60 pupils are excluded every day; one in eight kids have behavioural problems (pause, then the kicker) - by the time they're three years old. Fifty children a day are separated from their families (pause again) - by their parents. What were we meant to make of these? At one point, Adam spent a week in a young offenders' institution: the headline screamed that "Britain locks up more children than any other country in Europe"; but in Adam's case the experience had jolted him into good behaviour, leaving the viewer to wonder whether this might not be such a bad thing.

The film didn't allow any easy answers (just when you thought it was all the parents' fault, we met Ian from Bristol, whose caring, attentive father hadn't been able to stop him getting involved with a drug gang). But it was irritatingly prepared to settle for easy questions, ending with a conscience-pricking plea - how can we allow children to grow up like this? Point taken: but how can we stop it?

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