Last Night's TV - Tormented Lives, BBC1; The First Men in the Moon, BBC4
Where the streets have no shame
Wednesday 20 October 2010
That odd woman who put the cat in the wheelie bin – earning herself internet death threats, a tabloid monstering and a £250 fine – clearly picked the wrong target for her spasm of malice. Had she vented her spite on a disabled person she would probably have got away with it. And even if she hadn't I doubt that she would have provoked a national witch-hunt.
Tormented Lives, Rosa Monckton's film, began with security-camera clips very similar to that which led to cat-woman's downfall – low-resolution images of banal acts of malevolence – and I think it's a depressingly safe bet that their screening will not generate even a fraction of the communal outrage stirred up by that dumped feline. It's not as if these cruelties are rare either. Nine out of 10 people with learning disabilities will have experienced abuse at some time in their lives, according to Monckton. After watching her shaming film you couldn't help but wonder how on earth the remaining one had managed to steer clear, because she only had to walk down the street with one of her subjects to encounter examples of the bullying and mockery that she was talking about. Taken in isolation, these ugly incidents would be shocking, but accumulating drip after drip after drip they can make life unbearable. "I'm thinking that if the day comes I can't manage... my daughter and I will go together," said the mother of Kelly, a girl born with a chromosomal imbalance. "We must be the only group of parents who actually hope their children die before they do."
This is a personal issue for Monckton because her daughter Domenica has Down's syndrome, and she's understandably anxious about what will happen when she isn't around to shield her from the casual barbarism of the world. Revisiting Asher – a woman who featured in an earlier film she made about the strains of bringing up disabled children – she discovered her and her sons living in a state of siege, the cerebral palsy of one son having unleashed a steady campaign of vandalism and abuse, ranging from tyre-slashing to broken windows. Standing up to the bullies only seems to provoke their fury more – shame isn't a lever that you can employ against such people – and Asher was now having to contemplate moving out of the home that had just been adapted to allow her to cope with her son's care. Christopher – an older man who has hydrocephalus – had also discovered that challenging the abuser's sense of superiority could be costly. When a man came up to him and said, "What's it like being a retard then?" he replied, "Funny, I was just going to ask you that", a response that earned him a boot in the face that took out several of his teeth. He had other scars too, from the boiling water poured over his legs by a teenage girl and from a recent punch to the head, delivered by one of the raging inadequates who make his daily life in Hastings an ordeal. Unsurprisingly, some of the hatred he's been exposed to has soaked in. "You have the kindest face," said Monckton at one point. "Kindest words..." Chris replied, "I look like an Orc."
Monckton didn't attempt to analyse why people like Chris and Kelly provoke such nastiness in their tormentors, but she did make a persuasive case that such abuse should be treated more seriously and perhaps find some kind of formal inclusion under the title of hate crime. And she also provided one little glimmer of light in an otherwise unremittingly doleful film, after getting Chris a voluntary job with a local charity to work on their IT. Earlier, on the beach, he'd revealed that not all of the harshness he'd endured came from strangers: "I feel I've let my father's memory down because he always said I'd never amount to anything and so far I've proved him right," he said. As he emerged from his job interview – beaming widely – you saw the possibility of that cloud lifting just a little. It wasn't much of a candle to set against the dark, though.
Is there anything deader than science fiction that has been overtaken by science fact? I suppose there might be objections to this rule, but I'm not sure that H G Wells's The First Men in the Moon is one of them, despite the affectionate treatment it was given by Mark Gatiss in his adaptation for BBC4. Perhaps he was attracted by the steampunk vibe of Wells's story, or its distinct prefigurings of Avatar, in a story that comments on the colonial avarice of man, and the vulnerability of the Selenites, a tribe of peaceful lunar grasshoppers that the explorers find living below the Moon's surface. Gatiss had a lot of fun with the character of Cavor, whose anti-gravity paint makes the journey possible in the first place, and there was a very charming dream sequence, done as a parody of Georges Méliès (though it also alerted you to the fact that the special effects everywhere else in the drama weren't a great deal more advanced). He'd also come up with a neat framing device, which embedded the story into the day of the first real Moon landing. But even some tinkering with the end of Wells's story couldn't conceal its shortcomings, both as speculative fiction and as political tract. You were left feeling that it had been very nicely done, but uncertain as to why.
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