Television Review

Click to follow
WHEN CARL married his second wife, Ruth, she already had two young children of her own - Mark and his little brother, Jason. Carl also had a son, Paul, from his first marriage. After Ruth died of cancer eight years ago, Carl brought up Mark and Jason as if they were his own flesh and blood, while his own flesh and blood, Paul, lived with his ex-wife, although Carl got to see him at weekends.

Stepkids (C4) followed the run-up to the family's adoption hearing in Salford County Court. Although there was some fairly leading imagery, nothing stuck out so far that you stubbed your toe on it. The programme's fractured titles - jagged rips running through family portraits - were misleading in that respect; Scalextric cars bumping each other off the track and a lonely-looking cup hanging in isolation on a mug tree were as suggestive as it got.

Aside from the saintly figure of Carl, the two 11-year-old step-brothers took centre stage. The angelic, blue-eyed Paul went first, talking seriously, at first, about his relationship with Jason. Being 11, this was, of course, defined in terms of fighting. "If someone ever came up to him and started hitting him and stuff, and I was there, I wouldn't, like, just stand by. I'd, you know, defend him."

Over his shoulder, Jason sat deadpan in an armchair, aware of the reciprocal obligation this statement implied. Paul began to smirk as he continued. "...and I'm sure if Jason saw me in one of them positions, Jason would probably help me." Jason, when prompted, conceded that, yes, he probably would help Paul.

Much could be read into Paul's delivery and collection each weekend. Every Saturday morning, Carl parks his car by the side of the road and a few minutes later, his ex-wife pulls up. On this occasion, her vehicle drew in 20 yards away and the two cars faced each other at a distance, each set of headlights staring the other down. Paul ran between the two as if evading sniper fire in no-man's land at a cross-border checkpoint, but again, it was more subtle than that. Paul was happy and well-balanced, and his role was that of a good-natured envoy rather than refugee.

Such wisdom and maturity emerged in subtle incidents. When the family left the house for the court hearing, it was 16-year-old Mark - a brooding hulk of an adolescent with a slick black fringe - who locked the door, while it was poignant to see Jason washing up in such a practised fashion. "Be careful during the week," Paul called to his dad when he left for his mum's on Sunday afternoon.

One speech Paul gave involving his feelings about his dad adopting Jason and Mark was staggering in its maturity. "I'm happy for it," he said. "It's like I'm giving Mark and Jason my dad, saying, `Here you go, have mine. You haven't got one and I have, so there you go'." That may sound mawkish in print, but coming from the mouth of this wise man of 11 on screen, it brought me out in goosebumps.

At one point, Carl said that he got lonely at home, having given up full-time work to look after the two boys. He claimed that he didn't get to see much of other adults. I beg to differ - he lives in a house full of them.

Robert Hanks is away