Fool the viewers? I'd have to be kidding
Thursday 25 April 1996
For the past 20 years I have been no stranger to controversy in British television. From the moment the first school bell rang at Grange Hill in 1978, the first doorbell rang on Brookside Close in 1982 and the first mobile phone warbled in Hollyoaks in 1995, I have had to defend my work as both writer and producer from right, left and centre.
From this perspective, and without actually having seen the film myself, I can have some sympathy with the makers of the film Kids, due to open soon in the UK and causing a stir ahead of its release because of its depiction of under-age sex and drug abuse. The film's content and the furore surrounding it seem to be familiar. It depicts a group of teenagers doing things to each other, and anyone else they can get their hands on, that many people would prefer to think teenagers didn't indulge in.
In America, the establishment railed against Kids and limited its exhibition to "specialist film houses". Here, the British Board of Film Classification has decided that all the tests of British law - which says that every film must have a certificate - have been fulfilled, yet outrage about the film is growing in Britain. After all, the whole point of having a certification system is to alert people to the content of any particular film. An "18" certificate means it is suitable only for adults to view, two years after the law permits them legally to engage in many of the practices depicted.
The conundrum of regulation is one I repeatedly face in television. If you want to make films or programmes for young people, you will forever be running the gauntlet of both formal and informal structures of social mores and opinion. Despite the many attacks on television, it is heavily regulated and every serious programme-maker accepts that there has to be some consensual regulation.
The frustration arises when individuals or specialist lobby groups try to impose their own set of values on everyone else. The watershed argument is one that never goes away; with it comes the debate about who should be held responsible for what is seen in everyone's living room. From my own experience, the consensus seems to be that 9pm is a sensible time to start handing the control of television from children to adults, with broadcasters having to be conscious that before then a large number of young people may be watching. From then on, and definitely after 10pm, it is reasonable to assume that responsibility for control should rest with parents.
The latest incarnation of this debate is the recent excitement about the V-chip, which is supposed to allow parents to program their televisions so that their offspring could not watch unsuitable material. Apart from the fact that no piece of computer technology is infallible, the difficulties in classifying material would take us right back to the current situation with Kids. No sooner would we, as a society, agree on a system of classification, probably under the BBFC, than someone would be outraged at a particular programme, film or event being given a particular certificate.
In any such debate, it is important to remember the old adage that any message says more about the sender than the recipient. This is probably as true about Kids as it is about Trainspotting, for neither film, or any film for that matter, would be made without the passion of the filmmakers' personal interest. The criticism that Kids, although supposedly aimed at young people, is in fact designed more for the delectation of adults may be true, but provided, as the BBFC has stated, that it satisfies all the requirements of the law, is there a problem?
The real problems arise when film and programme makers try to claim, perhaps through self-delusion, that their work is representative of "everyone" or "all kids". It never is. It never can be. Youth culture is such an ephemeral thing. On the one hand, the media, music and fashion industries are trying to flog their wares on a national or international level, but on the other there is local peer pressure. Language and behavioural codes are more likely to be governed by locality rather than the national media. Liverpool, London, Manchester and Chester all have their derivatives: young people, like the rest of society, are a collection of minorities that never form a homogenous mass.
This highlights another bed of nails in the debate about "taste and decency". What is acceptable today may not be tomorrow, and what was unacceptable yesterday seems tame today. So, as a programme maker, how do you negotiate a way through this moral maze?
At the start of Grange Hill and Brookside I was criticised for pouring misery and depravity on people's heads. All doom, gloom and conflict. It wasn't; it was just one form of reality that I knew well, and as time has shown it chimed with a lot of people.
Ironically, 20 years after being credited with inventing socially relevant children's programmes and after seeing a host of derivative forms - from Neighbours through Byker Grove and Heartbreak High - I thought it was time to leave the social relevancy in the counsellor's office and go for a bit of fun and light relief. So Hollyoaks arrived with a slightly upbeat and irreverent look at life in what is still one of the most affluent countries in the world.
The irony was that although it was launched in the summer that every newspaper in the land seemed to be screaming for a return to "good old- fashioned family values", I found myself facing another wave of apoplectic critics asking why I had made a programme that seemed to be stuffed with beautiful people, was set in Chester and had characters with mobile phones, good teeth and cars. Where were the teenage pregnancies and drug abuse?
According to the Central Statistical Office, the rate of teenage pregnancy under 16 is less than 0.4 per cent, while the number of kids in this age group who have access to mobile phones is 12 per cent. Why cars over drugs? The proportion of kids with direct experience of serious long-term drug problems is probably fewer than 5 per cent, while 70 per cent of all households have regular access to a car, with 24 per cent having access to more than one car. So which issues are most relevant to most teenagers?
With relevance comes considerations of morality and responsibility. For some reason, many people seem to doubt their own value systems or their own impact and influence on their children. This must be the case, given the way they seem to abdicate their parental responsibility and immediately want someone else, usually the state, to take that responsibility. Television is the usual target, though family, friends and environment exert much more influence: peer pressure is probably the greatest known force. And there is a cycle of consensus here, as parents will generally find schools and environments for their children that reflect their own values, thus kids will continue to be influenced by their parents as well as their friends.
The lesson for any programme maker is not to step outside the consensual norm too often, and even when you do you have to justify it. In Hollyoaks we can show one of the characters being killed because someone else spiked a drink, provided we show that it was the "bad guys" that did it. Those same bad guys will be made to pay at some stage for their deed. This is not just a need to placate regulators or moral guardians, but good old- fashioned storytelling, fulfilling the expectations of the audience.
After 20 years of long-running serial dramas, I have learnt the hard way that if you don't generally conform to what the audience expects, they desert you in droves. Occasionally, you can challenge social values, but if the audience is not ready for it, the message, and the messenger, will be rejected.
I know this, because Brookside started with four million viewers but soon dropped to 500,000, simply because the viewers rejected my idea that as swearing was widespread in society, it would be accepted on a soap opera. It wasn't. Since then, through no end of sexual intrigue and harrowing domestic strife, the audience has risen to more than seven million a week. Experience as well as research shows that whenever Brookside tackles serious social issues, like domestic violence, the programme's ratings, as well as audience appreciation indices increase.
The point is that we must give people, including young people, credit for being able to fit television and film within the context of the social values they have inherited from their parents. There will always be debate about whose set of values is paramount, but we should remember that exposure to a few films with an "18" certificate is not going to counter the nurturing that most children receive at home. In short, kids are not going to lose their social perspectives because of a fictional tale, whether it is on celluloid or on TV.
That said, I feel a great degree of responsibility in making sure that even when we are tackling uncomfortable storylines, they must be as accurate as we can make them. Our responsibilities must extend to giving young people accurate information so that they may be better informed when faced by tough decisions in their own lives. In the recent drugs storyline in Hollyoaks, all our drug advisers concurred that the important message to send was that any chemical substance can do harm.
Following the death of one of the characters on the programme, Channel 4 ran a helpline after the relevant episode which proved extremely successful in offering counselling advice to young people. Large numbers of young viewers praised the way that the programme presented the issue, in a way they felt couldn't have been achieved through any amount of Government- inspired educational material. Overall, the responsibility is neither to sensationalise nor to exploit, but to get the facts right. Life is dramatic enough as it is.
GRANGE HILL: ROWDINESS AND REALISM
When Grange Hill was launched 20 years ago, it was given a stormy reception. The offence was not that the characters swore - which they never have done - but that they spoke with working-class accents. Their behaviour was rowdy, but only like that in most large inner-city comprehensive schools of that time. I was astonished at the hostility to the programme as I had toned down the scenes that I, and many other kids, had experienced first-hand at school. It was some time before critics appreciated that Grange Hill was a reflection of life. Now educational lobbies want to get their message across in the programme, and the cast was even invited to the White House as part of an anti-drugs drive.
BROOKSIDE: THE BAD LANGUAGE PROBLEM
The main difficulty I experienced with Brookside was the use of what I consider to be realistic language. It fascinated me which words would cause offence. I believed that as long as we didn't use "fuck" the viewers would not be offended. I wanted to see whether they would accept swearing provided it was used in the correct social and emotional context. Despite following the same conventions that exist throughout society - men swearing on the shop floor but not in front of their wives and children, and kids swearing among themselves but not in front of parents or teachers - I discovered that the audience did not want this on television at 8pm because children might be watching.
HOLLYOAKS: TEENAGERS AND DRINK
Although the audience's initial expectation of Hollyoaks was of a further slice of social realism, it was aimed as light entertainment for 10- to 15-year-olds. We didn't want to jump into the cesspit straight away; I wanted to show that teenagers' lives are largely unexceptional. Yet I have been criticised for "anodyne" storylines. However, we cannot show the characters drinking because the ITC have deemed it a children's programme and we are governed by a code of conduct which dictates that no one under the age of 25 can be seen to be enjoying the influence of alcohol. One of the problems is that there are no rules governing teen drama. In the eyes of the ITC, you are either a child or an adult.
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