|ONE SUMMER AND THE DIFFERENCE IT COULD MAKE
Colin Shearman on the making of Channel 4's new drama series that began on Sunday.
Writing about deprived kids for television can be a thankless task. Too political an angle is likely to produce charges of bias or propaganda. If it's a play there'll almost certainly be a row about the bad language. And interested parties always seem to take umbrage far too easily.
Yet having produced a set of scripts for Channel 4's new 5 part drama series ( on Sundays at 9.15 pm) One Summer, which successfully navigated all these hurdles, playwright Willy Russell - of Educating Rita fame - then fell out with the production team and insisted on having his name removed from the credits.
Both Yorkshire Television, the company which made the series for C4 - which started last Sunday - and Russell himself are keeping a low profile over the matter. Apart from a personality clash between the playwright and the director Gordon Flemyng, the main problem seems to have been over the casting. Yorkshire claims Russell wanted more control than was reasonable and he feels that the actors chosen - although excellent at their trade - just aren't right for the parts as he wrote them.
Russell himself says: "I didn't disagree that the series was good. But that's not enough. It could have been glorious."
As it stands One Summer is ideal Sunday night viewing - relaxing but stimulating. It tells the story of two tough Liverpool truants, Billy and Icky, who run away to Wales to escape trouble at home. Billy is intent on finding the site of a school camping holiday he once attended, the one enjoyable experience in his entire life. Instead they meet a drop-out teacher Kidder who very reluctantly lets them live with him in his derelict house.
"I taught kids like you" he says when they first ask to stay. "You'll take what you want then just bugger off".
In fact, they don't. They respond to Kidder's eventual trust and patience and, by the final episode Billy at least has been integrated into the local village community.
If that all sounds rather pie-in-the-sky, the series is written with a hard, realistic edge that makes everything credible. "It's not a fairytale about bad boys from Liverpool who're so struck by the countryside they decide to turn their backs on their evil ways" says the producer Keith Richardson. "We wanted to get across that here are two boys who are really quite destructive. Burstal is looming, they're unlikely to get jobs and their family situations are pretty desperate. But once they get away, they realise that there is life outside Liverpool."
Even in Wales, however, there's violence - from local yobos who see Kidder as an English hippy they'd rather not have on "their patch". That's an expression also used by the police and the gang that Billy and Icky fight in Liverpool, all of whom eventually turn up again to hurry the story to it's nasty tragic conclusion.
But at least in the warmth of the one summer they spend with Kidder, the boys have something that can never be taken away from them, and it's in the relationship between the three that the series really blossoms. Behind it is the familiar - but still controversial - point that it's the more irreverent teachers, at odds with convention, who really gain kid's trust.
"Kidder's the kind of teacher you'd really like to have" says Spencer Leigh, the 20-year-old actor who, as Icky, is making his first ever television appearance. "Most teachers don't even think about teaching a kid who's going to be naughty. But in the film we build on the warmth Kidder provides because we know we've got a good thing going for us."
And although the relationship is initially based on self interest - Kidder's exile, it eventually emerges, is as involuntary as the boys - it gradually becomes a point of honour for Billy and Icky to break the habit of a lifetime and not touch the savings which the ex-teacher leaves unlocked in his upstairs bedroom.
So is the series offering any answers? "We didn't set out with any preconceptions or targets to attack" says Richardson. "We tried to look at everything sympathetically and show both sides of the picture - a bit about the problems facing authority and the facts that the kids will respond to certain things like care and attention. I know it's been said before but I feel it needs saying again."
"All in all I hope that after seeing the series people might care more about what happens to kids like Billy and Icky. I hope they might realise that if things had turned out only slightly differently those kids would have been all right."