Keeping the little darlings glued to the box : Review

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The Independent Culture
Where would you expect to hear the line "You will all get a chance to put a condom on a vegetable"? The Word, perhaps? Terry Christian reassuring the studio audience that there is enough humiliation for all? Or Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, engaged in a particularly louche competition, something involving aubergines and blindfolds? Not, I am willing to bet, Grange Hill (BBC1, Tues) at around half past five in the afternoon. The vegetables in question were modestly sized courgettes, and the speaker was attempting to subdue the understandable ribaldry of a class taking an HIV awareness course.

On the gym floor, a long red line connected two placards reading "High Risk" and "Low Risk", and pupils attempted to gauge the risks of various activities by positioning themselves somewhere along it. It looked like they were walking a tightrope, in more senses than one.

It was, before you ring the Duty Office, an intelligently written, informative scene which knew that there were limits it could not cross. You would have waited in vain for the explicit questions about anal sex. It was also funny and watchable, honest enough to admit that the boys at the back of the class would spend most of their time sniggering and exploring the condom's rich potential as a weapons system. It was, in short, characteristic of Grange Hill's ability to negotiate between an adult notion of what children should watch and children's view of what they want to watch. The paradox, which Grange Hill exploits so well, is that putting education smack in the foreground allows it to be relatively inconspicuous - the Edgar Allen Poe device of hiding something in plain sight. This week's episode, for example, contained a brief digression on black holes and the Hubble telescope which came across as character detail, rather than instruction.

The Biz (BBC1), a new series for Children's Television, has also decided on a school as its setting, though with more concessions to childhood dreams of fame and achievement. The first episode began with classroom violence, an unbridled riot of hair-pulling and open-handed slaps, but it wasn't a breakdown of class discipline; the Markov School of Dance and Drama just happens to include fight choreography in its curriculum. All this is far more conventional than Grange Hill, a return to a tested genre of ballet and boarding-school stories. There are little rivalries between the pupils, incipient pashes, minor disasters that have to be overcome. This is a drama where the school theatre burns down because of dodgy wiring, not because the school glue-sniffer unwisely lit a cigarette; a school, moreover, where nobody cheers as the flames rise into the sky. It doesn't greatly surprise you that the young girl who can't sing to save her life brings Markov to his feet with the beauty of her dance or that the infuriating school show-off, all funny voices and attitude, reveals that really he's a sensitive petal who wants to play Hamlet.

Even so, the series is nicely done and has its moments of convincing asperity. There was a nice touch during the auditions for the new intake, when a young hopeful does a dreadful soft-shoe routine. "There might be something under the glitz," murmurs one examiner. "If there is, it's very deep," replies the other gloomily. That was a line that expected you to side with the grown-ups, but as well as recognising that talent is unfairly shared out in the world, the drama also acknowledges that childish ambition might not be entirely voluntary and that the adult world that employs them might not be very altruistic. (I wondered briefly, at this point, about all the young hopefuls who failed the auditions for The Biz.) Provided that young viewers don't find child performers as emetic as most adults do, the thing might well be a hit.