TELEVISION / Filling in the blanks: John Lyttle on the grim morality of youth and the breezy immorality of Mary Wesley

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DAVID WILLCOCK, producer of Everyman (BBC1, Sunday) isn't the first person to prise open the jaws of babes and sucklings hoping to hear the echo of something profound. Proud grandmothers do it - 'Did you hear what little Sarah said?' - and so have intellectual headbangers as diverse as R D Laing (Knots) and Jean-Luc Godard (France Tour Detour). As conceits go, the ineffable wisdom of children ranks with the 'spontaneity' theory of improvisation and suffers similar flaws. Delving for a deeper, 'natural' truth, improvising actors often inadvertently revert to what they're conditioned to deliver: theatrical characterisations and flourishes. Out tumble recycled cliches masquerading as the way it is.

Everyman: Hopes and Fears announced its intention of giving children a voice, in the wake of the death of James Bulger and tabloid sensationalism about juvenile delinquency. The wary viewer inevitably worried about ventriloquism. Whose voice? Like improvising actors, children can fall back on the pre-absorbed: what the media says, what their parents say, what peer pressure says.

Sharon ('I want to be a zoologist or a hairdresser') insists drugs dealers should be brutally dealt with. Is this premature loss of innocence talking aloud? Hanging tough for the camera? Or does Sharon mimic the attitudes of her uncle, who'd beaten up an addict for shooting up on a street corner? A blank-faced girl who helped her brothers burgle an old man's home expressed remorse, yet the sentiment lacked conviction. The unseen interviewer's conventional badgering ('Did you feel guilty?') demanded a conventional response. And that's what it got: a protective reflex action.

As the programme progressed it was the adult preoccupations behind the prying which compelled interest. God, drugs, angst, employment - no sex, curiously enough - crime . . . the list reflected grown-up concerns. As did the bulk of survey results trailed across the screen: 45 per cent said it was wrong to smoke, seven per cent thought shoplifting acceptable, 70 per cent declared life was worth living, 26 per cent had contemplated suicide.

The last figure surprised simply because it wasn't higher. For the considerable strength of Hopes and Fears lay not in having adolescents address issues they might never have given deep thought to, but in casual autobiography, in showing how its sample of council estate children lived with those issues on the lower rungs of the social ladder. That blank-faced girl murmured a resonant litany of despair: violent father, extensive drug experimentation, running away from home, taken into temporary care . . . She, at least, appeared over-qualified to speak.

Harnessing Peacocks (ITV, Sunday) had Serena Scott Thomas appear full frontal, wearing nothing save a red hat and say 'You have an erection' to a gentleman in the sort of voice usually reserved for 'The dentist will see you now.' It was a career peak Scott Thomas could proudly place beside the decorous vomiting of Diana: Her True Story - kneel, tetchy retch, pat, wipe, smile, seize the day.

This mix of blase and antiseptic makes Scott Thomas perfect for a Mary Wesley adaptation. The blend signals sophisication to many, so one proceeds cautiously when pointing out how oddly old-fashioned the formula is. For instance, it wasn't enough that Scott Thomas was playing a well brought up call- girl-muse who chose who she slept with - better yet, Hebe was only doing 'it' to pay her son's school fees. Surely only a prude would object?

And what a fuss about Hebe's pregnancy] Gorgon relatives loomed over her sobbing, prostrate form to chant 'Dirty little slut' while Hebe explained that she'd been slipped a Mickey Finn - amongst other things - and couldn't recall who the father-to-be was.

This worked well enough on the page, where the reader is a willing collaborator in the suspension of disbelief. But television visualises, limiting imagination's vistas. It also exposes. Andrew Davies' streamlined screenplay helplessly highlighted every implausibility: Hebe being adored by all merely because the plot demanded adoration; the fact that everyone conveniently appeared to know - biblically and otherwise - everyone else; the fact that Jim (Peter Davison) the antiques dealer had been searching for Hebe since fertilising her many moons ago . . . James Cellan Jones' direction made for easy pleasure, but one mused less on literary pedigree and more on the Higher Trash.

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