TV UK, 7 May

A grotesque morality tale masquerading as a teenage musical? Whatever.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Reviewing Whatever: a Teenage Musical is a delicate operation. I don’t particularly want to have a go at the kids who acted in the programme and sang very well in one case at least, but ultimately they were puppets in a grotesque morality play.

Whatever (Channel 4 on Tuesday) was written by award-winning documentary-maker Daisy Asquith in collaboration with Dunstan Bruce of the allegedly anarchist band Chumbawamba, but it might as well have been written by a young vicar with delusions of street cred. A surfeit of expletives and the gritty sounds of ‘eightbeat’ could not disguise the personal, social and health education curriculum. Drugs, drink, bullying, fruit machine-addiction, peer pressure to have sex, and teenage parenthood were all crammed into the hour.

Whatever has an obvious precursor in last year’s Feltham Sings, a musical made in the young offenders’ institution, but whereas that simply took a wacky approach to a proper documentary subject, Whatever had no such constraints. Asquith was able to indulge all the morbid fantasies that pass for ‘realism’ in British TV in service of a series of strikingly conservative messages.

The Protectors (BBC1, Wednesdays at 9pm), a documentary from the makers of Feltham Sings, is about the genuinely grim reality of child abuse, and the professionals responsible for monitoring offenders ‘in the community’. The first part, ‘Portrait of a Paedophile’, focused on Adrian, a 35-year-old who fits the archetype of the predatory paedophile. At one point, his probation officer rattled off the familiar line about how paedophiles are not monsters but ordinary people, but he choked up when insisting that Adrian ‘looks almost normal’, and his qualifying facial gesture spoke volumes.

We only saw Adrian in super close-up – his mouth, an eye – which made him seem even creepier. That, along with occasional ‘tantalising’ shots of children playing, seemed in bad taste, but in general the programme was a thought-provoking insight into the peculiar semi-freedom of the registered paedophile. Having served his sentence for his offences, Adrian has technically paid his debt to society, but a battery of police, probation officers and a psychiatric nurse is charged with keeping him from re-offending.

The tension between a penal system that punishes people for particular acts, and a prevailing philosophy which holds that certain people (‘paedophiles’) are predisposed to offending against children, was reflected in the professionals’ peculiar commitment to keeping ‘ex’-offenders out of prison while constraining their movements as much as possible. The title of next week’s episode, ‘A Second Chance’, has an obvious double meaning, and the general tenor of the programme seems to cast doubt on the wisdom of letting such offenders out at all.

When one client complains that he is being treated as a paedophile rather than a human being, however, one can’t help wondering whether the intensive supervision shown in the programme actually makes it harder to reform, and reinforces someone’s self-identification as a paedophile. The clients are encouraged to form adult sexual relationships, but required to discuss the details with professionals, which hardly makes things normal. There is an apparent inevitability when paedophiles do re-offend, but The Protectors makes it clear that there is an institutional structure, as well as a personal predisposition, to take into consideration.

This practical approach to what is too often a moral panic is welcome, and shows that TV can deal with serious moral issues without making a song and dance of it.

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