Ellie Levenson: Needed: A catchy tune to capture our conscience

The musical should star Victoria Beckham, and be launched at a Beckingham Palace screening
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The Independent Online

If only, I thought, the current child poverty lobby could get a film or a musical or a book to capture the public imagination the way Dickens's original novel did (and in the way I very much suspect Polanski's film won't), half the battle against child poverty would be won.

For what we have now, more than 150 years on from Dickens's London, is a firm government commitment to end child poverty - a pledge made by Tony Blair in 1999 promised to wipe it out within a generation, by 2020. But unless the public and the media make a fuss and force this government (and any subsequent government) to stick to this pledge, it is likely to be allowed to pass unfulfilled.

Shockingly, London in 2005 is not that different to the London of Oliver Twist. In London, according to a report last year by the Association of London Government: Capital Losses: London's Child Poverty, more than one-third of children are living in poverty - rising to half if you take just inner-London. Although we measure poverty differently now - no child in the UK is in danger of starving to death - this is a worse percentage than Charles Booth's famous poverty maps at the end of the 19th century that estimated that 30.7 per cent of Londoners (all Londoners, not just children) were living in poverty.

However, put that statistic to most members of the public and you are likely to be laughed out of town. For when people see children with expensive trainers and the latest electronic gadgets, they find it hard to get their heads around the fact that the child may also have very poor life chances due to poverty. In some ways today's poor children are like the Artful Dodger, looking the part of the young gentleman but living a very different life.

I worked in the child poverty lobby for six months last year. While I was there, one newspaper executive said to me that he believed the statistics and that he'd happily put child poverty on the front page to highlight the issue to his readers. That is, he'd happily do it if only I could get him 50 children looking poverty-stricken attending a party given by Posh and Becks.

The trouble here of course, other than my hotline to the Beckhams being not always fully functional, is that poor children today don't necessarily look poor, and consequently don't make great pictures. Unlike Oliver, their feet aren't bleeding after walking 70 miles to London and they are just as likely to be obese as a pile of rag and bone.

So given that getting even minimal publicity for child poverty is extremely difficult, the poverty lobby needs to take a different approach. No, I'm not calling for a new Dickens-esque novel. The authors on the Booker shortlist are safe to continue writing their homages to Forster and the like.

Rather we need precisely what Polanski's film is missing - songs. It's not Dickens we need, but Lionel Bart. What British adult for example doesn't know all the lyrics of Bart's Oliver! off by heart, and doesn't understand the horrors of the workhouse?

If I were in charge of the child poverty lobby - and I suspect at this precise moment they are rather pleased I'm not - then I would say to hell with funding another postcard campaign and forget the next survey on how much it costs to buy a school uniform. Instead I would pool resources and commission a musical.

For, unlike most people who brand themselves as intellectuals, I have no problem with admitting the following: Andrew Lloyd Webber has given me much more enjoyment that watching highbrow plays. I have seen more musicals by Rogers and Hammerstein than I have read books by Dickens. The Gershwins invariably make me think and I truly believe that if Stephen Sondheim says it's true then it must be.

What's more, I understand the power of a catchy tune over a memorable statistic. How many people can sing the rather complex "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"? I bet it's rather more than can quote the number of children living in families with less than 60 per cent of the median income. And I also bet that if you managed to incorporate this fact into a song in a bestselling musical film, many more people would take it seriously and start voicing their concern to politicians.

In the light of my conversation with the newspaper executive, here's an even better idea. The musical should star Victoria Beckham, and be launched at a screening at Beckingham Palace open only to children with anti-social behaviour orders. I bet that would make the front pages.

ellie@levenson.net

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