TELEVISION / A modern poet's anthem for doomed youth

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The Independent Culture
THIS MAY be a television column, but let's start with the radio. When I was driving my 10-year-old stepson to school a couple of weeks ago, Today (R 4) was going through a dull patch so we switched to Steve Wright. We got to R 1 FM just in time to hear the D J and his posse launch into a list of famous people who had been imprisoned. Up came Stacy Keach (drugs), James Brown (shooting), and the Motown funk musician Rick James. The details have gone, but his crime definitely involved a hot cocaine pipe, a woman and an act of sexual coercion. When we sought refuge in Today the time was still only 8.15am. For once, the pictures were no better on the radio.

Last winter we were on the same strip of road, and the radio was on again: this time James Bulger's murderers had been convicted and the England manager's job was up for grabs. My stepson asked if Terry Venables came from Liverpool; the two strands of news had merged into one in his mind. 'Little Angels, Little Devils', Blake Morrison's blistering documentary poem for Without Walls (C 4), wondered if children had never had it so good as they did in the days when the mass media didn't play tricks on them. What with hot cocaine pipes and Child's Play 3, we're feeding them knowledge that should be left till later.

But the thrust of Morrison's argument is that adults have never treated children correctly. The early Victorians beatified them, the late Victorians eroticised them, and this century's despots eliminated them. To illustrate this progression, if you can call it that, saccharine portraits of little Nells gave way to saucy snaps of Lolitas to an indiscriminate heap of tiny bones.

Even loving Christians have got childhood wrong, says Morrison: 'Please grant to this infant, we ask God, / The blessing of Thy 'Heavenly washing'. / Heavenly washing] It sounds like a line / from a soap ad. It probably is.' One of the threads of this film was a demonisation of advertising. A prelapsarian commercial for Farm Bell Butter depicted carefree children skipping through Blytonian fields where cows grazed and the sun drenched, but, despite the flickering cine film of the family Morrison at play, the poet remembers not the freedom but the boredom, the long hours to fill without television.

Besides, he has a special reason for not placing his trust in advertising. When he revisited the carcass of the house he grew up in, he found it repossessed. 'He couldn't pay his bills, / the Eighties adman who bought it from my Dad / and buggered off and left his kids behind.' As the camera snooped through the empty shell of the poet's past, you had to concede that the adman, whose industry gladly held hands with government in the long- gone aspirational Eighties, must have been a victim as well as a culprit, an angel as well as a devil.

The documentary poem, a genre that lends itself to the tolling of Hell's bells, was invented almost single-handedly by the dread-toned Tony Harrison. Morrison's voice is a reedier instrument, not really fitted for the despairing sarcasm of Judgement Day rhetoric. But you heard Hell's bells anyway.

In Assignment (BBC 2), the view was no rosier. 'Allah's Army', Stephen Sackur's report from the heartlands of the Hizbollah, pulled off the considerable scoop of interviewing one of the men who held British hostages captive in the Lebanon. When he spoke of the good treatment Terry Waite had received, and then referred to 'another person called John McCarthy', it sounded like the voice of someone from another planet, rather than just another hemisphere.

For anyone who doesn't know enough about Hizbollah's non-terrorist activities, this report told you some of what you needed to know. Any Israelis watching might disagree, but the distressing pictures of blood-spattered children in hospital after an Israeli bombing raid in south Lebanon told their own story. No one has an immaculate record on childcare.

Tom Sutcliffe is away