TV UK, 16 January

Wall of Silence: a two-dimensional docudrama, but it works.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Wall of Silence (ITV1 on Monday night), a docudrama based on the murder of London teenager Jamie Robe in 1997, always threatened to follow Channel 5’s similarly titled Hear the Silence by living up to all the worst traits of the genre. Docudrama is typically worthy and self-important, one-sided and moralistic, and above all, emotionally manipulative.

What’s interesting is that in the event, Wall of Silence succeeded not by avoiding such pitfalls, but by leaping in whole-heartedly. In fact it would probably be hard to portray a teenager being brutally beaten to death by a gang of thugs without being emotionally manipulative, but Wall of Silence really went for it. The murder itself was shown in silence, pre-empting the silence of the title – the refusal of witnesses to speak up – while those witnesses looked on, appalled but passive.

A more challenging drama might have opened with one of the murderers innocently fishing with his dad, rather than Jamie himself, but the teenage killers in this drama were two-dimensional scum, who almost certainly didn’t have dads. As my more impressionable counterpart at the Guardian put it, ‘we didn’t get to know the killers, learn of their deprived backgrounds, or discover they had been abused as children’ (1).

Right. But even more interesting than seeing the flipside of the two-dimensional cut-outs would have been for the screenwriter to try to get into the heads of killers like these, and make them human beings. Instead, viewers were invited to fantasise about machine-gunning the bastards, abused-as-kids or not. The Rotherhithe Tourist Board will not thank the producers for this portrayal of their manor.

But Wall of Silence worked after all because the characters who were made human had some depth and were well acted. While James Nesbitt starred as Jamie’s dad, arguably the real central character was DI Tony Cottis, played by the always-convincing Phil Davis. As the detective in charge of the case, it was Cottis who had to tackle the wall of silence head on, and contrive to chip a hole in it.

He eventually did this with the help Tracy Broughton, a local girl of the same age as the killers who knew them well, but who eventually refused to keep their secret. The actress Stephanie Leonidas did a great job of bringing Tracy’s predicament to life, making it clear that for all her bravery she was far from an ideal witness. Connoisseurs of courtroom drama will have cheered when she told the obnoxious defence barrister to fuck off. (This docudrama was never going to make much of a case for civil liberties.)

Channel 4’s new drama Shameless provides a more positive take on life on working-class housing estates, with the comic adventures of a single-parent family in Manchester, but Tuesday’s opening episode was burdened with introducing the main characters, so I’ll come back to that next week.

For now, a word on Texas Teenage Virgins (Sunday night), in which filmmaker Vicky Hamburger explored the abstinence movement in President Bush’s home state. Yes, it’s a bit odd, and the movement’s advocates do seem to subscribe to a particularly dumbed-down version of Christianity, but the programme suffered from a lack of imagination.

Probably in the grand scheme of things teenage sex has always been the norm rather than the exception, but critics of movements like this do tend to elevate the experience of mainstream postwar Western teenagers to some kind of law of nature, when it demonstrably isn’t. It takes diff’rent strokes, and all that.

Even worse was the programme’s focus on STDs. Just as the creepy Pastor Joe, apparently lacking faith in the power of faith, resorted to scare stories about condoms having holes in them, Vicky Hamburger charged the abstinence movement with increasing the incidence of gonorrhoea by failing to teach safe sex.

You might think it would be hard to think of a conservative argument for opposing the teaching of abstinence, but Hamburger takes the biscuit.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Don’t say a word, by Gareth McLean, Guardian, 13 January 2004

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Topics Culture


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