Quite often these days I do not watch programmes on TV which I suspect will be harrowing. There is only so much grief and despair which one can take on, and so, if I can choose to avoid it being beamed into my sitting room, I do so.
This is why I did not intend to watch Boy A on Channel 4 recently, but I did record it for my husband and by chance found myself caught up in the sheer awfulness of the developing tragedy when I started a run-through of the video to find something else of an entirely lighter nature, which I had also recorded.
The feelings I had then have been brought back to my mind again by a book review in the Guardian of Saturday 8 December 2007 revealing that the Channel 4 film was based on a story by Jonathan Trigell. Apparently his book was originally published in 2004 by Serpent’s Tail and has now been re-issued to accompany the film which I saw. I missed the book first time around, so I have now ordered it from a bookshop, so that I can take more time to think about the loose ends and the many questions which the film raised for me.
The film was such an excellent piece of ‘faction’ that I have thought about it as a real life narrative and have thought about the issues it raised as if it were real life. It certainly made me revisit a number of similar occurrences from my past career. It could no doubt be used as teaching material for trainee teachers and social workers.
The story of Boy A had familiar echoes of other children killed by children and the animosity demonstrated by adult members of the public towards the young murderers, not to mention the hysteria of a press pack in full chase.
As someone who has spent a long career in both education and social care I was saddened by the way in which both these and other agencies were portrayed as having failed two boys – because although the subject of the film was called Boy A, there was also another boy involved, presumably known as Boy B.
The film showed both boys suffering social, material and emotional deprivation up to the point of committing murder. Both had virtually dropped out of their respective schools and, although they must have been only around 12 years of age, no one seemed to notice, or care, or do anything about it. So the two boys fell into company with each other and wandered around getting into scrapes, until the day when they and a little girl were all in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The early part of the story was told mainly in flash backs experienced by Boy A. I think probably the scene which caught my attention and made me wind back and watch the whole programme was the court scene, where the two little boys, whose legs did not reach the floor from their chairs, sat before the full might of the English criminal court system.
Nobody had cared enough to see that their families had help and support, or that they had received appropriate schooling before they got to this point, but plenty of resources could now be spent in bringing them to ‘justice’ and punishing them for most of their childhoods.
Boy B was indeed punished by his peers, whilst supposedly safe in an institution. Boy A survived his custodial sentence, but returned to ‘the community’ to continue his ordeal.
The tragic end to the story caused me to think about ripples – how in real life one action leads to other, and then to the often unintended or unforeseen, consequences, which go on and on. Like the ripples from a stone dropped into water.
Presumably the fictional well-to-do family of the girl victim had to undergo the grieving process and live with their rage at the two perpetrators lifelong. How did it affect other children they had or might have? How did affect their relationship?
Certainly the stress split up Boy A’s mother and father. His mother took his younger brother to remove him from the hostility Boy A’s notoriety had created in the neighbourhood. The younger brother grew up with his mother, burdened by her terminal illness until she died. When he then sought out his father again, the boy’s feelings of anger and rejection and his supposition that his father loved his brother more than himself led to yet more fatal tragedy in the end.
When Boy A was released, he faced huge problems. Much of the youth language and culture were unknown to him and he had no idea how to relate to his peers. His rented room remained like the cell in which he had spent adolescence. He didn’t know what to do with his wages.
His final act set off yet more ripples. The lives of his father, his brother, his friend at work and the girl to whom he was learning to relate would all be rocked, and the ripples would continue to buffet them for years.
Did anyone who had been involved along the way ever wonder if it could have been different or think about the ripples their actions and inactions created for others for years afterwards? What about the inadequate parents, the schools, the welfare agencies? Did nobody see the need to intervene to help two boys who were failing and being failed educationally? Did no-one notice that Boy B’s responses quickly accelerated out of all proportion so that even as a small boy his violence subdued the gang of local bully boys? Did the secure institution really let a young boy develop into a bewildered young man with no social skills?
Most of all I wondered about the criminal justice system which literally tore two small boys from the arms of their parents and locked them away. Apart from the unforeseen and unintended outcomes for those whose innocent lives were touched by the awful drama, what benefit was there to any of the three children?
Finally, of course, there was the baying press pack of journalists with their cheque books, who had no concern for anything but their pictures and their stories. Creating ripples? Wrecking yet more lives? Do they give a damn?
This was powerfully written and impressively acted fiction, which was so uncomfortably close to many real lives which had touched mine over the years, that I found myself thinking, questioning and responding as if it had been a true to life documentary.
Serpent’s Tail (2004)