Television Review: Junk

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The Independent Culture
BBC EDUCATION has been the source of some creditable television drama over the years. There was a spartan adaptation of Hard Times, the great set text about education, which got a feature-length screening in the evening, a series called Shakespeare Shorts and any number of lively half-hour dramas. This weekend in Shot Through The Heart, a big BBC drama tackles ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Scene did that five years ago.

Junk (BBC2), at least in my viewing experience, is a departure for Scene, in that it grapples with problems which might ring a bell with its target audience. It was shown as part of the BBC's "Learning To Be You" campaign, designed to help children make more informed decisions about alcohol, drugs and so on. It was adapted from Melvin Burgess's cautionary account of teenagers succumbing to heroin, which put backs up when it won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in 1997. The TV version is even more frank, showing 14-year-olds in horror-show scenarios: in bed together, shooting up, on the game...

In many ways, the plot is a straight homily - a three- part heroin-screws-you-up infomercial. The two teenagers who run away from home are driven out by strains in their relationship with their parents. The boy, Tar, has an alcoholic mother and a violent father (a teacher: no doubt the boys and girls at school sniggered at that one). The girl, Jemma, has a doormat for a mother and a father who can't bear to let her drift away from him into adulthood. The parents were all badly acted, even by Anita Dobson as the mother sozzled in gin, and badly written. But in a way it didn't matter that they looked like stereotypes, because this was less about why children hate their parents than the consequences of that hate.

Once installed in their squat, the young lovers fell out with the vegetarian peacenik agitators whom they lived with, and moved in with a more lively couple who turned out to be casual heroin users. Before you could blink, they were all slouching around on mouldy sofas, scratching themselves, looking pasty and wondering where the next fix was going to come from. The problem with dramas about drugs is that there is something inherently anti- dramatic about addiction. The story never changes, and few dramatists have managed to overcome that: there's Jimmy McGovern's Needle, and then you're struggling. Also, addicts tend to speak a particularly colourless form of conspiracy- theory anti-authority drivel; in that sense, Barry Purchese's script was boringly true to life.

As Jemma (Jemima Rooper) gave a good account of a spiky but basically sensible girl whose grievance with her father curdles from brattish rebellion into something more dangerous. The script allowed moments of moral clarity in which she was granted a vision of her own perdition. Never having been there, I don't know if this rang true, but it did look suspiciously as if the script was tampering with the reality of addiction to hammer home the message. I'm not sure it's drama, but in the end, all that matters is that it's received and understood.