TELEVISION / Rooting for the good guys

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The Independent Culture
SOCIAL workers don't, on the whole, get the most sympathetic press, so we shouldn't begrudge them the odd scrap of favourable propaganda that comes their way. Still, you couldn't help wondering whether Fifteen: The Life and Death of Philip Knight (ITV) wasn't taking things a little too far.

From Yorkshire's dramatised account of how a 15-year-old boy came to hang himself in Swansea Prison in July 1990, only the social workers emerged untainted. These weren't the gawky, weasel-minded, socially impaired child-stealers of myth: these social workers were wise, strong, kindly, stylishly dressed and rather better than average looking. Philip's adoptive parents floundered around, failing conspicuously to understand or cope with a disruptive child. But while everyone else flapped around helplessly, the social workers flew straight to the heart of Philip's problems; they understood why he was violent, why he stole, why he ran away. If only they had been allowed to do their job properly, you gathered, Philip might be alive today.

This may be unvarnished truth, as determined by careful research. But you suspect that the canonisation of social workers had more to do with docu-dramas' need to take sides. At several points, artificial tension was concocted - what is the mystery lurking in Philip's adoption file? Can they find his real mother in time to save him? The final half-hour was pure sub-Hitchcock, as social workers raced against the clock to find Philip a foster home before he killed himself.

Conversely, if this had been made as pure drama, you suspect it might not have been two-and-a-half hours long. The length seemed to be dictated by the seriousness of the issues, rather than by narrative necessity. Perhaps it was to emphasise the seriousness that Philip himself (excellently acted by Daniel Newman) was shown in such a rosy light - the assumption being, not unreasonably, that the public is more likely to get worked up about the death of a sweet kid than a straightforward juvenile delinquent. We saw something of his capacity for violence, although his parents have been quoted as saying that the film understates it considerably. But mostly he was a moody, artistically inclined adolescent, a South Wales James Dean.

In a way, this approach backfired: it would have been easier to sympathise with Philip if you could feel 'there, but for the grace of God . . .' But everything was a little too perfect for that - camera work, melancholic soundtrack, the Welsh landscapes. This gloss at least reminded you that Peter Kosminsky's film wasn't to be taken too literally. In real life, jails and children's homes aren't this squeaky clean. People aren't this pretty, the light hardly ever cuts through cigarette smoke with this sort of wistful poetry.

On the Line (BBC2) adopted a different, much simpler strategy to convince you of the gravity of the issue it tackled: it hired John Waite as narrator. At his best, Waite is an excellent investigative journalist; but - and this is perhaps not his fault - his unwavering gravitas can sound misplaced. Last night's subject was cricket umpiring, and the fear that because a first-class umpire's job depends on marks awarded by county captains, umpires are being hindered in 'the fight against intimidation, lawlessness and ball tampering'. It would have been nice to hear somebody say 'It's only a game', in an off-handed, cheery sort of a way. Then again, if it was John Waite, you wouldn't have believed him.

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