Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IF, ONE sunny day next summer, you tell your teenage children that mum and dad are taking them to a picnic, don't be alarmed if they run screaming to their room and refuse to come out again until Christmas; don't be surprised if they never go down to the woods again. They probably saw last night's Witness (C4).

"The Picnic" was made by October Films, which is apt given that the subject of the film was children in the autumn of youth. It followed the radical measures taken in south Mississippi to find homes for "difficult" older kids, its dramatic focus being an annual picnic where 45 children free for adoption were sized up by adults who were free to adopt them. The kids wore orange T-shirts, the parents green. It put the "pick" into picnic.

One foster mother, 12-year-old Chris's carer for four years, decided to adopt him permanently after other parents had sized him up like a potential "fresh piece of meat". This livestock analogy was used throughout "The Picnic". As the children assembled for a photo call inside what looked like an auction-pen, parents-to-be leant on metal rails and eyed up the children like steers. They stopped short of prodding their young hides, but were happy to thrust cameras in eager little faces.

A house-buying metaphor would have been just as fitting. Sylvia Sessions, adoption "specialist" cum estate agent, shamelessly manipulated open-faced couples at a pre-picnic meeting. "We've really got some neat kids, but I'm in love with this one," she teased, clutching a Polaroid to her breast. "If somebody else don't take him, I'm taking him." The wide-eyed adults, by then giddy with essence of parent, were shown a cute seven-year-old called Jeffrey. "He's just got free for adoption," Sylvia slyly concluded.

In other words, it's just come on to the market, it's exactly what you're looking for and other people are already interested. They didn't find out until later that Jeffrey had the behavioural equivalent of subsidence. By then it was too late. "She did tell me that if she was in my shoes, she'd be scared too," Paulette said later, recounting Sessions's call to tell her that the adoption was approved, after an afternoon's courtship of cuddles and candyfloss. This was typical of the adoption agency's tack as the usual adoption etiquette was abandoned and a child's history withheld until after the first meeting.

But the film was guilty of manipulation, too. After an hour my heartstrings were badly frayed with all that tugging. A clumsy C&W soundtrack was insistent in making its rather obvious points in the musical shorthand so overused in radio features, and the director had an insatiable, if indiscriminate, appetite for visual metaphor. To make the point that a new kid on the block might struggle to fit in, it was a game of one-on-one with the basketball bouncing off the rim. Later, at the picnic, the ball swished clean through the hoop. The most successful of these were naturally the least contrived, such as the tender shot of Jeffrey reaching for his brand new dad from the merry-go-round outside McDonald's.

In Sound Stories (BBC2) the focus switched from damaged children to fractured communities in "An Irish Requiem". This charmingly understated film followed a four-day concert tour of Mozart's Requiem, with choirs from both sides of the border combining to celebrate the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion. Happily for the film's makers, this coincided with the conclusion of the Good Friday peace agreement.

One could imagine it as a low-budget British movie - a choral Commitments, if you like - and the director appeared to have something similar in mind. Organisers Terry McCabe and Bernie Lloyd had to borrow thousands of pounds for the tour and would only break even if the concerts sold out. Rehearsals were delayed by coffins in church; there was the anticipatory pre-concert hum as Tony and Mo sat down at the table with John and David.

With that moral undertone unique to a requiem, it felt that the choristers themselves were contributing to the peace process - in a climactic chorus of assent, voices chimed in one after another, while long-lens shots of Stormont with politicians embracing were spliced in. Thirty minutes flew by; like the negotiations themselves, the programme had a momentum of its own. And both - for the time being at least - had happy endings.

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