02 September, 2008

What the Papers Say: "The Children"

Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

Some people are meant for kissing, others aren't. I think I'd put Kevin Whately in the latter group. He never kisses, or is kissed, as Lewis, I don't think. And there's a reason for that. But here he is in The Children (ITV), at it with Geraldine Somerville. Tongues and everything. Eurgghh. There should be an upper age-limit for tongues and everything on telly - I'm not sure what age exactly, but a few years less than Kevin's. Actually, it's the leaning in bit, lips parting in readiness, that is even more worrying than the snog itself. It gets worse, because here they are, a bit later, actually, you know, doing it. She's on top, he's lying on his back, gasping with his mouth open so we can see his upper teeth and the roof of his mouth. Mercifully it's only for a second or two, but that's still too long - the image lingers, the damage is done. Horrid. Turn off the lights if you're going to behave like that.

The third most disturbing thing in The Children - after Kevin's inappropriate arrival at second and fourth bases (in that order) with Geraldine - is the death of a little girl, which happens right at the very start of this haunting three-parter by Lucy Gannon. From the child's death we work backwards, filling in the pieces of the months leading up to the tragedy. The picture that emerges is not a happy one. After one couple's messy break-up, we're left with a thoroughly modern extended family of exes, currents, possible futures, new stepparents, new brothers and sisters, new homes. It's a mess (what happened to the traditional family unit, where's my copy of the Daily Mail?). And in among all this debris, two children, aged seven and 14, try to survive. One of them, the little girl, doesn't.

It's cleverly done and manages to thrill, move and disturb all at the same time. Uncomfortable viewing for parents, I should imagine. Do you know what's going on in your kids' bedrooms? And in their minds? Do you really communicate with them properly? Is it time for a little chat, before it's too late ... ?

Snogging aside, Whately puts in a decent performance as the emotionally scarred and unaware dad. But he, and all the other grown-ups, are acted off the screen by the two young stars, Sinead Michael and Freddie Boath, who play the kids. Both are amazingly natural and convincing; I'm sure child actors never used to be so good.


Andrew Billen, The Times

Even were there not a dead child at the top of the programme, the first episode of ITV's new drama, The Children, would have justified the catchline by which the network has been promoting it: “When adults play, the children suffer.” It was as if the Mail's Melanie Phillips had written the screenplay rather than Lucy Gannon, best known for Soldier Soldier and episodes of Corrie. But this morality tale carried the ache of truth nevertheless. The Children may be the best drama serial ITV has come up with in months, but there'll be droves of divorced parents for whom, suddenly, New Tricks on BBC One is essential viewing.

It is about that pass-the-parcel of loyalties that is played when men abandon their families. Cameron, played by Kevin Whately, his niceness blurring all the time into his selfishness, has left Anne, played by the incomparably visceral Lesley Sharp. Cameron is living with Sue, who in turn was left by Paul, who has had a baby with Natasha. Two children are left out of the game: Cameron and Anne's troubled teenager, Jack, and Sue and Paul's little girl, Emily, whose sinister end punctuated the programme in flash-forwards.

Let's forgive ITV its need to reduce this serious piece to the genre of whodunnit, and see Emily's death as a metaphor for the adults' deepest buried wishes. Whatever they think, these middle- aged adults are led not by their parental love but by their libidos. Cameron is big on afternoon sex sessions, which Sue, played by a wonderfully tense Geraldine Somerville, seems to see as her due after her husband's desertion for “Pneumatic Tits”. Anne too, at 38, is not out of the game. Indeed she is out most nights downing cocktails with her underlings at work and conspiring to bed her boss. The one person who deserves to see some action, Jack, has to content himself with internet porn, for which he is castigated.

When not behaving adolescently, the grown-ups behave childishly. “You are a very peeved peevish person, a VPP,” Sue tells Cameron, a headmaster, in her best baby talk. Over-sexed with one another, when they honour their children with quality time, the parents are over-playful with them. The child actors steal the show: Sinead Michael as the callously vulnerable little Emily, and Freddie Boath's wonderful performance as Jack, the 14-year-old who everyone forgets is still just that. Take away the murder mystery, and ITV would have here a very adult drama.


James Walton, Daily Telegraph

Any parents contemplating divorce at the moment might want to avoid The Children (ITV1). Lucy Gannon’s script is too deft to go for anything as crude as preaching. Even so, it seems firmly based on the premise that marital breakdown always affects children – and that the effect is always bad. About halfway through, Sue (Geraldine Somerville) offered to take in Jack, the troubled 14-year-old son of her new partner Cameron (Kevin Whatley). “Come on, Cam,” she told him sweetly, “it’s what we’ve always said: the kids mustn’t suffer.” By that stage, though, we already knew this was wildly self-deluding.

More importantly, we also knew that her own daughter would soon be dead. Last night’s opening episode began with – and often returned to – eight-year-old Emily (Sinead Michael) on a swing in the back garden. In best thriller tradition, she then turned round to greet her off-screen murderer…

From there, The Children flashed back to three months earlier when Cameron and Sue were setting up home – with Sue already cast in the role of determined optimist. “To new starts and new families,” she said, raising one of those oversized wine-glasses that invariably signify middle-class well-being.

Sad to say, such feelings weren’t shared by young Jack (Freddie Boath), who tried hard to scowl when he’d surely rather have been crying. Not that you could entirely blame him. His mum Anne (Lesley Sharp), with whom he was still living, had opted to deal with her divorce by drinking heavily, crying a lot and calling Cameron “a bastard” over the phone whenever possible. She also went for some classic attempts to tar Jack with the same brush. (“That’s right, you walk out just like your useless father.”) No wonder that before long Jack preferred to spend his time swigging cider in the middle of the night on local waste ground – which is why Sue and Cameron decided to take him in.

Meanwhile, although they were too distracted by Jack to notice it, Emily had her problems as well. Despite his obvious fecklessness, she continued to idolise her dad Paul (Ian Puleston-Davies), a radio DJ with a plausible line in paternal patter. At first, Emily seemed merely fascinated by the baby Paul now had with his blonde girlfriend – but gradually her feelings were revealed to be more complicated and perhaps sinister than that.

To its credit, last night’s episode managed to combine this assiduous plotting with plenty of everyday touches that captured the sheer awkwardness of living in other people’s families while having to pretend that you’re not. In another persuasive twist, the programme also suggests that adult selfishness is largely inadvertent. On the whole, the grown-ups are trying to do their best. It’s just that they haven’t noticed – or for understandable reasons of self-preservation are unable to admit – that their needs and those of the children are incompatible. And of course, everything probably would be fine if only children were more reasonable (ie not children).

Fortunately too, the series has assembled a cast that can do all of this full justice. Kevin Whately is as good as ever at conveying male bewilderment – while Geraldine Somerville somehow conveys the uncertainties that lie behind Sue’s public optimism. In Lesley Sharp’s hands, even Anne isn’t simply a cartoon baddie, but a woman whose self-pity is definitely rooted in the facts of her life. Finally, and almost needless to say these days, the children are miraculously good as well. (At which point I’d love to provide a brilliant theory as to why child acting has improved so vastly in the past few years – except that I haven’t got one.)

The result isn’t completely flawless. Maybe unsurprisingly in the circumstances, some of yesterday’s plot developments were a bit rushed. Anne, for example, seemed to give up her custody of Jack without a murmur – which didn’t feel very like her. Despite apparently hurting the baby when they were left alone together, Emily was soon allowed to look after it again, thereby enabling her to run off with it in a way that may or may not turn out to be related to her murder.

Still, at least these mild blemishes were linked to another of The Children’s strengths: that it never forgets it’s supposed to be a thriller. So far, the whodunit element has remained bubbling away nicely in the background. Yet, now that everything’s so neatly in place for it to take centre-stage, my hunch is that it will prove just as gripping as last night’s set-up did.

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