The BBC has rethought children's TV and made Summerhill. Our critic
sits up straight and tries to pay attention
January 19, 2008
At the end of a week in which The Times has dedicated itself to
children's TV, it seems fitting, correct – and like I know what's
going on in the rest of the paper – to review the BBC's new kids'
Children's drama gets a short straw. Of all the areas of the arts, it
registers the longest delay between broadcast, and the
programme-makers finding out if the audience liked it. With
children's TV, there are no congratulatory e-mails from your mates
the next day. You have to wait until your viewers have stopped
wetting themselves, left school, discovered marijuana, and spent long
evenings passionately, but slightly ironically, discussing all the
programmes of their childhood to find out if, after all, Biker Mice
From Mars hit the spot.
Anyone who has a fondness for children's TV will already have been
sent reeling by last week's announcement, on the future of Grange
Hill. It is, apparently, to be reimagined to "fit in" with the new
BBC charter. All the awkward teenagers – with their edgy, socially
relevant problems like drugs, horniness and flick-knives – are to go.
In their place, a host of 7 to 11-year-olds will be installed, and
shows will revolve around such plots as "an escaped puppy causing chaos".
One would hope, then – Grange Hill clearly having had its knackers
cut off and thrown in a ditch – to see the BBC's children's drama
department being able to show its balls on other projects. Although
obviously not literally, as I should imagine there have been some
pretty strict memos around the BBC in recent months about such things.
And Summerhill does promise some sinew. After all, this four-part
series focuses on the legendary school where children make the rules,
and its 2000 court case – when David "No hippy teachers in Hush
Puppies on mywatch" Blunkett tried to close it down, but failed. In a
world where we worry about simultaneously mollycoddling and
over-pressurising our children, a drama about kids who spend all day
running around with their arses hanging out, screaming, and falling
out of trees, but at a boarding school, borders on the subversive.
Alas – as you would kind of expect from a show almost singlehandedly
representing the BBC's children's drama department – Summerhill
buckles under the weight of its many tasks. Despite having four
half-hour episodes to tell its story, Summerhillcan't fit in
everything it wants to. It has painstakingly to spell out the
educational ethos of Summerhill, in a serious of earnest speeches –
"Freedom is a big thing to deal with. Sometimes, you have to learn
it." It has to cover an educational tribunal that set a legal
precedent in British teaching standards. And – as all TV must these
days; even the weather reports and Nasdaq updates – it has some
"emotional journeys". These concern the two new arrivals to the
school – Maddy and Ryan.
Maddy (Holly Bodimeade) is a hyper-anxious overachiever. She
seriously needs to get a small muddy smudge on her nose, take her
shoes off, and dance to some crazy rhythms being knocked out on some
steel drums in the school's courtyard.
Ryan (Eliot Otis Browne Walters), on the other hand, is a
one-stop-shop ASBO rat-boy. His path to responsible adulthood will
clearly have to involve nurturing a small, abandoned baby rabbit back
Having watched all four episodes of Summerhill,however, I must report
it's a bit of a curate's egg. A bit of a Lowby David Bowie (no one
ever listens to side 2). For while there are lots of pleasingly
lysergic shots of English woodland in summer, and a hot turn from
Jessie Cave as teen hippy sex-pot Stella, the second half of the
series focuses on Summerhill's pivotal educational tribunal.
Desperate to razz the whole thing up, Summerhill descends into
"imagineering", culminating in the boggle-some scene in which the
renowned human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robinson, QC, dresses up as
Peter Pan, and attacks Blunkett's lawyer with a cutlass. Watching it
borders on the mortifying, and makes you wish they had just stuck
with emotional journeys, educational proselytising, and Jessie Cave
smiling sexily in the sun.
In 20 years' time, however, when Summerhill's viewers are stoned
thirtysomethings, it will seem semi-legendary – like the episode of
Camberwick Green when Windy Miller goes whacky on cider.
Summerhill begins Mon, CBBC Channel, 6pm, continuing Tues; episode
one repeated on BBC One, Wed, 4.30pm. A full version is also due to
be shown on BBC Four