Television: The high life

`Junk', a gritty drama about teenage addiction, caused uproar when it was shown on BBC Schools. Now it's going mainstream
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The Independent Culture
A 14-year-old girl and boy are graphically depicted injecting themselves with heroin. In their desperation to find money for the next fix, she turns to prostitution and he to armed robbery. These are hardly the sort of scenes you would expect to see in a BBC Schools programme.

But they form the backbone of Junk, a powerful BBC2 adaptation of Melvin Burgess's award-winning novel about teenage drug addicts in Bristol. When the programme was first broadcast in a BBC Schools slot - it has been re-edited and goes out in a feature-length version tomorrow - Junk had campaigners reaching for the Basildon Bond.

John Price, the producer, recalls the storm of protest. "Mrs Whitehouse wrote, `Where is childhood? Buried by the ambitions of television programme- makers who want to make a name for them-selves through sensationalism. It makes me want to weep. The BBC should cancel it.' Why would I make the film to achieve any of those aims? If that's what I was after, I'd make Beadle's About.

"Some people decide to hate something before they've actually seen it," he continues. "Because Junk is about heroin and young people and underage sex, campaigners were always going to pick on it. But I say to them, `Get real, this goes on.' All kids know this goes on, but we've got a massive drugs problem because adults like to think it isn't there. If you make a show where you pretend it's not happening, you alienate the very audience you're trying to address. In the event, we got amazing feedback. For instance, we got dozens of letters praising it from Roedean School."

Burgess, whose novel won the prestigious Carnegie Medal when it was published in 1997 and has since been translated into more than 20 languages, reckons his story struck such a chord because very few authors have dared tackle the subject of teen drug addiction before. "When you consider how long kids and drugs have been an issue, it's amazing that no one has been writing about that world. That whole counter-culture has been greatly under-represented in the literature of young people. It's not an audience that has been treated with the respect it deserves. People have always been coy about it - it's all been `just say no'.

"The thing is that young people do sex and drugs and rock'n'roll because they're fun, and writers don't like to address that. Like any censorship issue, people are always worried on someone else's behalf. But I've had an awful lot of positive letters from youngsters who feel the book is non-patronising and talks to them directly. It has the authority of characters drawn from life."

Price chips in that "adults will complain about drugs and then have a large pink gin. Too often these stories don't come from the point of view of who you're trying to get the message to. You can't deny that drugs are a part of youth culture. A third of heroin addicts are under 16. Every parent in the country should read this book.

"It's about treating the audience as adults and showing them the truth. Yes, your first hit of heroin is going to make you feel better than you've ever felt in your life, but look what happens three years down the line. You're on the game and feeding Methodone to your baby."

Without being overtly didactic, Junk does have a salutary effect. After seeing this film, the last thing a viewer would want to do is go out and chase the dragon. "It does put people off, which can't be a bad thing," Burgess carries on. "I didn't want to wag my finger, but you'd have to be an idiot not to draw an adverse opinion of heroin. Heroin makes such a great baddie. Hash or Ecstasy doesn't twirl its moustache in the same way."

Price agrees, concluding that the programme's greatest contribution is "education, education, education. I know I sound like Tony Blair, but if Junk stops one kid sticking a needle in their arm, then I don't care if I never make another film in my life."

`Junk' is on BBC2 at 10pm tomorrow

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