TELEVISION / A teenager on the outside, looking in

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The Independent Culture
SIMON, the doomed Holy Fool at the centre of Criminal (BBC 2) is one of nature's spectators. You see him first as if suspended in space, the glowing orb of the earth slowly rising into the blackness in front of him, as a voice intones an ecological sermon, a text which his silhouette invites us to apply to human conservation too. After this celestial beginning, the film comes down to earth with a bump, blinking into the light outside Bradford's Imax cinema (which neatly supplied that opening special effect). The planet, we have been told, is slowly dying 'for lack of love', and Simon is on the same grim trajectory, staring helplessly at the world.

Vincent O'Connell's film was based on a real case, that of Simon Willerton, who hanged himself in Armley Jail a few days before his 18th birthday. That fact, and the sardonic terseness of the title, led me to expect a pretty conventional arraignment of society's indifference - that is society as in 'society must be protected' - the mechanisms of education and law and order.

But the film didn't indulge itself with a parade of institutional villainy. Simon's life at school was nightmarish and filmed as such, a blur of pursuit and abuse. But after flinching the first few times adults came on the scene, bracing yourself for one of those unpleasant little melodramas of corrupted power, you relaxed. On this evidence Simon was surrounded by a congregation of saints, from his kindly headmaster to the school caretaker. He had friends too, girls who stood up for him in ways little short of heroic, won over, you assume, by his guileless innocence.

And because the film wouldn't casually endorse Simon's own clumsy lament ('Why is it always me, eh? . . . Why I get dumped on'), it had access to a larger pity, something more subtle than the grievances of adolescence. There was no false magnification of the forces opposed to him, which made his descent all the more wounding. He met less kindness as he grew older, a simple truth about the liberties we allow children, but even then the cruelties visited upon him were mostly at the hands of those closest to him, nasty little sods looking for someone lower down the pile.

Two prison warders looked away when they shouldn't, but for the most part the worst he encountered from officialdom, or the worst that was shown, was bemusement and exasperation. The film wasn't complacent about this - it was awful to watch at times - but by avoiding the sort of accusatory drama that powered a film like Cathy Come Home it left you feeling that its project was little short of a reform of human nature.

'No more bashing,' Simon wailed after being bullied and assaulted yet again. We'd all drink to that - but if teachers are kind, neighbours considerate and magistrates helpless, where exactly would you start? It wasn't that Simon was a hopeless case either. He did a Norman Wisdom impression to get himself out of trouble at one point and sold papers with a streak of inventive fantasy ('Elvis comeback tour] Starts at the Alhambra]'). But his qualities - kindness, an engaging other-worldliness - are only exploited by other people, never by himself.

The film's only specific accusation was a silent one - the absent answers to Simon's repeated letters asking for a visit from his family, for some sign of support. If this was an artistic elision, it was a libel, because it suggested an abandonment without excuse. That aside, though, the only true villain of the piece appeared to be life, which so often contrives to expose the most vulnerable to torments the strongest of us would buckle under.