Can't watch,must watch

Tomorrow night on ITV, one girl's harrowing story of abuse. Tabloid newspapers have been quick to cry foul. The programme makes horrifying viewing but, Suzanne Moore says, it should be seen

Suzanne Moore
Monday 24 February 1997 00:02 GMT

There are some programmes on television that you just don't want to watch. You know you should but you just can't face them. Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough was one, and this Tuesday on ITV at 10.40pm is another - No Child of Mine - a film about child abuse. Produced and directed by Peter Kosminsky, who made the controversial Shoot to Kill, it tells the story of Kerry, who from the age of 10 was pimped by her father and sexually abused by both her mother and stepfather.

The film, written by Guy Hibbert of Prime Suspect fame, has been made with the support of all the principal national child support agencies such as ChildLine, Kidscape, and The Children's Society. After transmission, 46 special telephone lines will be open, staffed by trained counsellors. Meridian is also sponsoring a "survivors' directory" for adults who were abused when young. This then is television specifically designed to prompt action. Just as Cathy Come Home spotlighted the plight of the homeless and the charity Shelter grew as a result, No Child of Mine focuses on the lack of provision of "safe houses" for sexually abused children. The film itself will be followed up by a debate the next morning on The Time, The Place and by a special edition of Yorkshire Television's 3D, in which Julia Somerville has gained access to a "safe house".

Such socially concerned television may be highly laudable in the days of The Girlie Show, yet the tabloids have already been on the attack over No Child of Mine. Everyone agrees that child abuse is wrong but their concern is for the 12-year-old actress Brooke Kinsella, who plays Kerry. Teresa Gorman has demanded that the film not be shown and is quoted in the Sunday Mirror as describing it as a "disgusting movie", which makes it sound like the whole thing was done for entertainment. The Daily Mail has zoomed in on Brooke Kinsella and found parents of other young actors who say they would not let their child play such a role as they feel it would traumatise them. They also point out that an older actress could have played this role. As the film starts when Kerry is 10, this may have been difficult. Yet the central issue remains: has a child in some way been abused in the making of a film about child abuse? Kosminsky understands this concern and there were a number of parents who read the script but felt they did not want their children to have anything to do with it. He admits: "It was a borderline decision, a very tough decision, whether it could be done by a child or not." Yet he stands by his decision, insisting that Brooke was cast because she was the best actress and because she had a supportive family who could be on set during the filming. Neither he nor her parents felt that she had been deeply traumatised, although at one stage she did start crying because, she explained, she was merely thinking about what the real-life Kerry had been through. One of the reasons that Kerry's story was chosen is that despite her horrific life Kerry has moved on to university and is now doing well. Out of the bleakness there is a positive message, which Kerry was keen to put across.

Having read about the film and with a daughter the same age as Brooke, I too was concerned about No Child of Mine. Yet the film itself contains no nudity, and most of the abuse is suggested rather than shown explicitly. There is far more detailed sex and violence in the average cop show. This is not a graphic documentation of what Kerry suffered at all. Nonetheless, it is harrowing stuff. Indeed, one of the problems dramatically is that because the story is told from Kerry's angle there is a sense of numbness, of horrific repetition, about it. Her story is so shocking not just because her teachers and doctors failed to pick up on what was going on at home, but because when she is finally taken into care, into supposed "safety" she is raped by a care-worker and starts working for a pimp who hangs around the children's home. Her stepfather is not prosecuted for child abuse because according to the Crown Prosecution Service there is not enough evidence. Again, this is a common occurrence. Kerry in her desperation for love still goes home to more abuse long after she has left it.

At a time when we are all worried about anonymous paedophiles taking our children, No Child of Mine clearly locates abuse within the home and within the family, and that is something some sectors of society would rather not acknowledge. The figures on the sexual abuse of children are still perceived ludicrously to be some feminist plot. We simply do not want to believe what is going on. The feeling of not being believed, taken seriously, the isolation of thinking that you are the only person that this is happening to is conveyed brilliantly by the young actress in the film. When she phones ChildLine she is unable to speak and it is only when she gets to the safe house that she is able to disclose her past. For the first five days however she is unable to even say her name.

Brooke Kinsella displays a maturity that is not so unusual in 12-year- olds, and if we are to worry about the exploitation of children on screen, for a far less worthy cause, I think we should be more concerned about Kevin Maxwell's daughter, who was recently to be found in a television documentary crying about the possibility of her Daddy going to prison. In contrast, No Child of Mine is highly responsible and responsive film- making in that it offers back-up services for those disturbed by it. One hopes that children who need help will see this programme, although it is going out quite late, and that it fuels the political will to provide more safe houses for these children. It is not easy viewing and it is uncomfortable, but as ever those who seek to ban it are confusing representation with reality. Brooke Kinsella is aware that she is acting, aware that these terrible things happened to someone else, not her. If we are too frightened to portray these horrors then those that suffer them will do so alone. And they will do so for real. In order to protect children we have to face up to what is happening. We have to believe them, and if seeing is believing then sometimes we have to see what we would prefer not to

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