TELEVISION / Suffer the children: Thomas Sutcliffe on Jane Horrocks as 'Bad Girl'

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THE OPENING speech in Guy Hibbert's drama Bad Girl (BBC 2) was delivered by Jane Horrocks as she walked alongside a canal. 'I was stupid and foolish and immature and irresponsible', she confessed equably, 'and I should have been hauled up before the beaks and told to do it right and I was, and I did it right and this is what happened.' You could have been forgiven for taking this as fair evidence that you were in for a cheerful, resilient drama of moral improvement. But in truth you were being lead up the tow-path.

To the same end (misdirection) the drama maintained its soaring upward trajectory well into the piece. After her baby is injured by her druggy boyfriend, Maggie Hunt, an occasional nightclub singer comes under the scrutiny of the social services, a world of Care Orders and Family Assessment. Conventionally you would file this under 'Uncaring Bureaucracy: Excoriations Of' and move on, but there was a bizarre sunniness to the plot here. The removal of Maggie's child, though traumatic, proved to be a galvanizing moment, transforming her from a sullen, sarcastic no-hoper into a sunny, dynamic go-getter. Maggie learns how to smile, creates her own job, finds a nice boyfriend and moves into his flat, all with a speed that suggested someone had waved a wand near by.

There were threads of unease in the fairy-tale; wasn't it paradoxical for the social services to insist that a cockroach-infested high-rise was more suitable for a child than a cosy houseboat? Wasn't Maggie's new hairstyle a little too Stepford Wives? Can you really marry the painful truths of Cathy Come Home with the warming fantasies of Working Girl? On the whole though you could cast those doubts aside and take it as a script which rewarded the triumph of maternal responsibility over romantic rebellion. 'We've got lucky haven't we?' exclaims the remade Maggie after a court rules in her favour over custody.

Well, no, we haven't. The boyfriend skips off to Singapore, Maggie discovers she is pregnant, a crucial social-worker is hauled over the coals when he gives a child-batterer the benefit of the doubt and appeals against the verdict. With a rapidity that parallels her sudden ascent Maggie finds herself back on the dole in a bed- sit and her prospects of getting her son back fading fast. From then on no tear is left unjerked.

At first Hibbert deals the cards out evenly, recognising the incompatible demands on social workers for protection of children and compassion to parents but later the drama feels more confected. It isn't that you can't imagine these things happening, just that Maggie's disasters seem piled on, the responsibility of an author who wants to pummel his audience emotionally rather than a system that might be improved. Indeed there were times when you felt that only a concern for local realism had prohibited the wholesale distribution of shiny toppers and black moustachios - asked at one point how the case is going, an icy social services solicitor replies 'Much better . . . she's got into all kinds of problems'. Elsewhere, the film wielded images of desolate children and maternal distress as efficiently as Laurence Olivier with a dentist's drill. Supported by Jane Horrocks' powerful performance, Bad Girl was consistently moving, but in which direction you could never quite tell.