Television Review

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THERE ARE SOME things which are almost impossible for television to represent adequately on the screen - arguably, all of the important ones. Too much of life either has to be toned down for reasons of taste, or ends up looking clumsy, ridiculous or simply dull.

To coincide with the report of the North Wales child abuse tribunal, Place of Safety (BBC2) surveyed the scandal and the reasons why it took so long to come to light. A succession of victims, mainly men, mainly in early middle-age, recalled the treatment they were subjected to while "in care" in homes in North Wales. Beatings and rape were routine, along with a variety of other forms of violence and sexual abuse. There was no relief from this regime. One boy sent to Bryn Estyn, the home outside Wrexham which was the centre of the allegations, had been warned by his older brother, a previous inmate, about what to expect. He fought back, but the staff simply turned their attention to other, younger boys. Others tried complaining to outside authorities, including the police, but were simply disbelieved.

In 1984, Bryn Estyn was closed down because of local authority reorganisation, and members of staff were re-employed elsewhere in the North Wales childcare system. We heard of one children's home run on a regime of beatings and blow-jobs; of a childcare worker who got into trouble after being found in a girls' dormitory, but still got a reference which enabled him to get another job, where he raped a number of young girls. One abuser was described in bizarre terms: "Imagine a Tony Blair running a children's home."

In 1986 - following the death of a 16-year-old boy - Alison Taylor, a social worker, began to doubt the efficacy of the care system. After talking to children in care, she realised that violence was widespread in local authority homes throughout North Wales. When she took her case to the police, they dismissed it on the grounds that she was seditious and subversive, and had possibly even bribed children to invent their stories for her own cloudy reasons. She was subsequently sacked by social services for "gross misconduct".

Eventually, some allegations were taken seriously. Senior councillors in Clwyd began piecing together information, and realised what had been going on. Several men were tried and convicted. An inquiry was set up to uncover the whole story, but its findings were not published, apparently because the council's insurers were wary of attracting compensation claims. Even now that the Welsh Office's tribunal is publishing a full report, some victims are dissatisfied that they were not allowed to name all the names they wished to, and there are suggestions that the North Wales homes were part of a national network of paedophiles.

Wynford Jones's film was mostly content to tell the story straight, letting witnesses say what they had seen. But, at times, the programme became stylised and emotive - breathy, melancholy music, shots of waves on pebbly shores and sunlight on hills and woodlands providing woodenly ironic backdrops. There was a sense of impatience, of unwillingness to let the viewer go away and chew it over: instead, you had to be appalled on the spot. Well, I was appalled; but I also felt a little manipulated, and unhappy that the programme felt it had to cajole outrage from out of me.

The Vice (ITV) has a different way of pressing the viewer into moral indignation: it just homes in on policeman Ken Stott, sincerity and suffering speaking from his worried brown eyes and crinkly smile. With its ecclesiastical overtones (Stott's character is called Chappel; his sergeant is a devout Christian) and its excursions into modern seaminess, the series is clearly trying hard to be more realistic than most about what policemen do. It also wants at least to prod at the morality of prostitution, if not to probe it thoroughly. But it keeps slipping into cliche - last night Stott became yet another policeman having to be pulled off a sneering villain. And while it wants to explore moral ambiguity, the closest we've got is the ludicrous subplot about Dougie, an impressionable young copper, who is getting rather too involved in his work. Last night, he chained his girlfriend to the bed in an attempt to spice up their sex life, dooming their relationship and the programme's chance of being taken seriously. There are some things you just shouldn't try to show on television.