TELEVISION REVIEW / Promises broken on the streets of Philadelphia

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The Independent Culture
'I AM A PROMISE' (C4), a film for True Stories, took its title from a bright and shiny song that the black children of Stanton Elementary School in Philadelphia sing as they leave to move on to high school. They clap and tap on the school steps, in perfect harmony like the feel-good ad for Coke, as they recite cuddly, self-indoctrinating lines like 'I am a great big bundle of potentiality'. The adventure of life beckons; anything is possible. But some things are probable. Crack. Crime. Rape. Murder. Otherwise known as the inner city.

This monumentally draining film went out at an apposite moment. The summer holidays approach, and now's the time to assess what it is that school has helped your child achieve since last September. Reading not up to scratch yet? Attention wavers at the end of the day? At Stanton, inculcating in each pupil a reluctance to punch classmates in the face seems to be the first hurdle.

Some never clear it, like Cornelius, who's on twice-daily medication to control his aggression. His father's a paraplegic. 'Got shot a coupla times in the back,' explained his mother, who was herself not above dishing out violent threats like leaflets. Cornelius couldn't have been more than 10, but you were nagged by the thought that they might as well come and take him away now.

An invitation to a documentary film- maker seems to have been the last throw of the dice for the school's saintly principal, Mrs Burney, a tough Caucasian cookie who, quite simply, goes to war every morning. By the end of the year she had concluded that her huge investment of time and emotion in an all but lost cause would never be matched financially by government. The last blow inflicted by this documentary was to bring news of her resignation, which rather undermined her claim that poverty does not equal incapability.

It is possible that children who don't get enough attention at home would react excessively to the idea of being filmed, but Alan Raymond's wobbly hand-held camera is as unintrusive as overt filming gets. When Burney went out into the syringe-strewn playground in the morning and lavished affection on her brood, one cynically supposed that she was playing up to the camera, but getting to know her soon disabused you.

The only significant distortion might have been perpetrated by Susan Raymond, who wrote and directed the film. In a year's vigil, there seems to have been little time for filming kids working obediently in classrooms. Most footage involved Burney arbitrating between kids like a boxing referee at a never-ending bout. The one success the film admitted to in the face of terrible results in literacy and comprehension tests was Nadia, whose parents are crack addicts, who was made homeless at eight, but whose creative writing is coming on a treat.

The ultimate threat to misbehaving boys seemed to be to call in their families, but most parents who came in looked as though they were reluctant to return to school themselves. The father of dysfunctional Anthony agreed to supervise his son's classwork, but never came back after the first day. Not long later, Anthony's grandmother became his guardian.

Wake Up With . . . (ITV), a spoof of daytime television, is from a school of sitcom with severe learning disabilities. Smoothie Jonathan (Nigel Planer) is worried about going bald, bitchy Libby (Susie Blake) is worried about getting fat, and they bicker incessantly. That they host a dire morning show together at least demonstrates that Andrew Nickolds has found a new home for a lot of old jokes. There are so few laughs, you might as well watch the real thing.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away