Is there a more incendiary domestic issue right now than child abuse? In the current climate, where vociferous tabloid campaigns have brought protesters out onto the streets and led to paediatricians being mistaken for paedophiles, it is the hottest of hot topics.
For TV dramatists, paedophilia is a subject that comes with the words "handle with extreme caution" stamped all over it. Which is what makes BBC2's Real Men such a courageous enterprise. Penned by Frank Deasy, who made his name with Looking After Jo Jo and The Grass Arena, this disturbing BBC Scotland drama is not afraid to go into this delicate territory.
It homes in on outwardly well-balanced Detective Inspector Matthew Fenton (played by Ben Daniels from Cutting It), who takes on an apparently routine investigation into a missing child. However, he becomes increasingly perturbed as his inquiries uncover more and more evidence of a far-reaching web of abuse.
Deasy, who has talked to victims, police officers, social workers and psychiatrists as background work, spent more than four years writing this meticulously researched piece. Even so, is there not a danger that the two-part serial could be seen as making dramatic capital out of real-life tragedies? Not according to Barbara McKissack, head of drama at BBC Scotland and co-executive producer on Real Men. "This is absolutely not cashing in on actual cases," she says. "In approaching this topic, you realise that your audience will include a number of people who have suffered abuse themselves, so you've got to be completely responsible about what you're showing. Making this drama, we were well aware of the enormous duty to get it right.
"Frank wrote this before any of the high-profile recent cases. It was inspired by inquiries into children's homes from years ago. But it goes to show that the story is still horribly relevant – in fact, it's quite scary and staggering how relevant it has turned out to be." David Snodin, the producer who has in the past made Crime and Punishment, Holding On and Great Expectations, takes up the theme. "We do not want to be seen to be exploiting people's suffering. Real Men is not doing that – it's just telling it like it is. If you try to make the subject more palatable, you're only doing a disservice to the victims." All the same, Snodin knows full well that the tabloids may still lay siege to the drama. "If they do attack us, then they won't have understood what we're about," he contends. "They'll just have seen the words 'child abuse' and responded with headlines like 'BBC produces paedophile drama'. But I say to them, 'watch it first and then form an opinion'." The film-makers emphasise that their work is sensitive rather than sensationalist. In its own small way, the drama is attempting to diminish the hysteria that so often surrounds this inflammatory subject and obscures our comprehension of it. Real Men is designed to foster understanding, rather than prejudice.
The director Sallie Aprahamian (This Life, The Sins, The Lakes) says that "without condoning for a moment what abusers do, I want to get beyond my own salivating response and see that this is an incredibly complex issue. You can't see that while you're shouting 'string 'em up'. If you have a hysterical reaction to a problem, you'll never solve it." Deasy says that although he can sympathise with those who seek revenge against paedophiles – "some days I think that we should just throw away the key" – equally he is aware that "we will never proceed if we don't understand these people.
"I don't want viewers to feel sorry for the abusers. Understanding is so often confused with accepting or normalising. But it does not mean excusing or minimising – we have to understand these offenders in a scientific sense." The writer reckons that if we demonise paedophiles, we will never find out what makes them tick or prevent them from re-offending. He also believes that we should pay more heed to those who have been on the receiving end of abuse.
"It would be immensely helpful for society to listen to the thoughts of survivors of child abuse. We have politicians and judges and policemen and teachers who are survivors of abuse. If that subterranean experience were genuinely opened up, a lot of answers would emerge. If we listened more, we'd understand more."
There are certainly signs that television is becoming more sophisticated in its approach to this trickiest of subjects. The Bafta-winning film, Care, and ITV1's recent Loving You both dealt thoughtfully with the thorny matter of child abuse. But weighing in at three hours, Real Men is British television's most substantial dramatic meditation on the topic yet. "One of the biggest questions of our time is our responsibility to children – how we protect them and how vulnerable they can be to adults,'' McKissack concludes. "If Real Men makes us question society's role in that duty of care and our part in that, then it will have played a positive role."
'Real Men' is on BBC2, Wed and Thur at 9pm
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