Television review

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The title, and the title sequence, suggest that Jake's Progress (C4) will keep its eye on one character only. But it quickly proves, like all of Alan Bleasdale's work, to have much wider sympathies than that. Like much of his work, also, it isn't particularly amenable to precis, but at the end of the first episode you might roughly hazard the following: this is a drama about what children do to their parents, and vice-versa - about the difficult, emotionally bruising experience of trying to build a family, a construction for which the parts arrive piecemeal and for which the instructions are always missing.

"That child came out of the womb looking for trouble," says Jake's grandmother. You dismiss this at first as merely hateful - an element of the character's self-dramatising misanthropy. In fact, Bleasdale takes care that some guilty thoughts cross your own mind about Jake later. And whether she's right or not, the judgement is its own fulfilment. "I 'ate 'er," says Jake whenever his grandmother appears, because he recognises her hostility. Part of the grandmother's problem is her dim sense that Jake may be cleverer than she is - he has a precocious grasp of emotional strategy which leaves her standing. He rattles his enemy, not by punishable acts of aggression, but by smiling at her with unnatural persistence, so that her protests sound simply paranoid. Later, he creeps downstairs and sets fire to a newspaper while she sleeps in an armchair. Naturally, her insistence that Jake has tried to immolate Granny makes her sound battier still.

We know that she's right, but this isn't just a tale of demonic infancy. Jake also has a troubled time with his mother, Julie (Julie Walters), resenting her work and her exhaustion, and clinging to his father Jamie, a failed rock-star who now stays at home to look after their only child. The details of this intractable cat's- cradle of need and hurt are wonderfully done; Jake and Julie are like magnets that can't get their poles aligned, so that they bounce off each other rather than clutching together.

You see too that Julie can't mother Jake properly because she's too busy mothering her husband - a feckless evader of harsh realities who conspires with his son in ways that look jolly but you know might easily turn sour. "Only one rule in life," he says in a conspiratorial whisper to his son. "Never get caught." What will innocence do with that instruction, you wonder.

Best of all, the writing always puts you on both sides of the door, a quality well caught in a marvellous bedroom scene. Jamie wants to make love and coaxes Julie out of her exhausted refusal with a funny, conjugal piece of pillow talk about "maps of Africa" on the sheets. By the time Jamie wanders in in his pyjamas a little later, he finds his parents converted into a strange organism: gasping female head, humped duvet body, naked male bottom and legs protruding from the end of the bed. He pokes a buttock quizzically, triggering off a flurry of bodily rearrangement and giggly explanations about lost contact lenses. The scene is hilarious, but you don't lose sight of what that intimate adult laughter must look like to a small child - a hurtful exclusion from some secret game. When he returns to his bedroom, Jake pulls an atlas from the shelf, looking for a clue to all those geographical allusions. There are worse hurts in store - other occasions when some lasting wound begins to open in the gap between what's said and what's understood.

It's still not possible to say how Gothic this is going to get, though a Hammer Horror piece of business with a fortune-teller, and a fantasy sequence in which Jake lures his new brother over a cliff, suggest that Bleasdale isn't bashful about such effects - that he wants to tease us with something weirder than social forces. It may turn out to be about innate wickedness after all, but whatever happens next, it's already wickedly good.

See feature, p29