TV Review: Kidult: Marathon Boy/BBC4
The Secret World of Whitehall/BBC4

Gemma Atwal's film Marathon Boy (screened in BBC4's Kidult series) interleaved its narrative with shadow puppet animations – a flicker of simple two-dimensional shapes in which there was never any doubt about the differences between hero and villain, victim and monster. The documentary footage that surrounded these sequences, by contrast, was alive with uncertainty. You started watching with an easy assumption that you knew exactly what kind of film this was going to be – a study of obsession perhaps, or an anthropological curiosity. You ended having seen it twist in front of you into an entirely different kind of documentary, gripping and sad and durably ambivalent about its subjects.

Something of a marathon itself, Atwal shot the film over five years, initially attracted by the fuss surrounding a young boy called Budhia, who'd attracted a considerable following in the Indian state of Orissa. Budhia was a slum child, taken into a private orphanage run by a judo coach called Biranchi Das, a man who appeared to be driven equally by compassion and a desire to make his mark on the world. According to the official version, Biranchi Das had punished Budhia one day by making him run round the orphanage courtyard. Having forgotten to tell him to stop, he returned hours later to find the three-year-old still running. Convinced that he'd discovered an athletic prodigy, Biranchi Das began training Budhia for marathons, turning him into a mascot of local state pride and an object of quasi-religious adoration for the crowds that came out to watch him jog pass.

At which point Orissa's child welfare bureaucracy got interested and attempted to prevent Budhia from running any more marathons. Biranchi Das – not one of nature's diplomats – reacted with scorn and defiance. After learning that Budhia's mother had sold him to a street peddler for 800 rupees (around £11), he adopted him and promptly set up a record-breaking attempt to run 42 miles. Astonishingly, Budhia completed the distance, staggering over the finish line almost comatose with exhaustion. And as Biranchi Das persuaded him to run another two miles to meet local dignitaries and ventriloquised his public statements ("Say the more the police drag you down, the more you will strive to succeed," he whispered in his ear), you didn't have much doubt that someone needed to intervene.

Budhia's supporters were protesting in the streets and burning effigies of local child-welfare officers. The Orissa government, meanwhile, appeared prepared to do almost anything to assert their authority, from persuading Budhia's mother to reclaim him and take him back to the slum, to bringing a series of embezzlement charges against Biranchi Das. Budhia's celebrity was beginning to create a perception of wealth, though Biranchi Das insisted that it all went to the running of his orphanage or into a special trust. He certainly didn't look like a man who was exploiting a child for riches, even if it was clear that he'd lost sight of Budhia's best interests in a dazzle of self-regard and personal drive. When the police moved in to prevent the pair from starting a 500km marathon walk (an attempt to get round the running ban), Biranchi Das recorded a protest song with the help of local musicians, further aggravating the authorities.

Eventually – by some means that wasn't clear – Budhia's mother was persuaded to assert her right to take her son back, at which point he began making allegations of abuse against his former coach. Tellingly, while he'd never appeared distressed in Biranchi Das's care he looked visibly disturbed when making these allegations, repeatedly biting his mother and pleading to go. Then, shockingly, Biranchi Das was shot dead, in a contract killing that seemed to hint at police and state corruption. Budhia withdrew the charges of abuse, and the Orissa government gave him a scholarship of sporting excellence that now allows him to attend a private school, a gesture that it was hard not to read as penitent. The shadow puppet animation had shown a spider, reaching out to ensnare Budhia in a web and haul him back to his mother. The film showed you three dimensions, a world in which a charitable ambition could begin to look like exploitation and child welfare like a kind of abuse. Nobody came out if it well, except perhaps Budhia, who at least came out the other side.

Sir Humphrey Appleby was the figure haunting the first episode of The Secret World of Whitehall, another of Michael Cockerell's dissections of the Government machine. This time he was concentrating on one of the less conspicuous bits of cog-work – the Cabinet Secretary, whose job it is to make sure that the entire mechanism functions in reasonable synchrony, and actually travels in the direction that the Prime Minister wants it to. It is a position of considerable power and influence, though it seemed balefully significant that while early Cabinet Secretaries had served several Prime Ministers in succession, carrying their knowledge of government from one incumbent to the next, Tony Blair, who wanted to wrestle control away from the mandarins, had got through three on his own. Like Marathon Boy, this too left you a little uncertain about who was the villain and who was the hero. Civil servants, after all, don't get elected by anyone, and can be masterful at dulling the edge of political will. Then again, there are times when you'd be very grateful for someone to do some bluntening.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam