17:32, December 16 67 0 theguardian.com

2019-12-16 17:32:04
TV review  Responsible Child review – too young to buy a hamster, but tried for murder

It is possible that you are not in the best place to deal with more bad news about Britain and its enduring commitment to moral failure. But we get not only the leaders, but also the television we deserve. Responsible Child (BBC Two) is a drama built around one extraordinary fact – that, in England and Wales, children as young as 10 can be tried for murder as if they were adults. Think for a moment of any 10-year-olds you know and imagine them in crown court being assumed to have the capacity of a grown man or woman. In fact, 7,057 of their pre-pubescent peers have been through exactly that since 1995. That is the year, incidentally, that the UN pointed out that having such a young age of criminal responsibility was incompatible with the UK’s obligations, as part of said UN, on children’s rights.

Responsible Child was written by Sean Buckley (who penned Skins) and directed by the documentary-maker Nick Holt, in his first foray into drama. It draws from a variety of cases, but is perhaps most directly based on the 2014 case of Jerome Ellis, aged 14, and his 23-year-old brother, Joshua, who stabbed their abusive stepfather to death as he lay on the family sofa.

The drama follows the story of 12-year-old Ray (Billy Barratt, an actor the same age as his character, who turns in a credible and heartbreaking performance) and his 23-year-old brother, Nathan (James Tarpey doing likewise), living under the tyranny of their mother’s boyfriend, Scott. It is told in two timeframes. The preparation for Ray’s trial plays out in the present. We flash back repeatedly to the events that led him there, from the “ordinary” fear the boys live with under Scott’s rule, to Scott’s armed attack on Nathan, for which he is charged with attempted murder – only for charges to be dropped and Scott to return to the home more furious than ever.

It is, to put it mildly, an untenable situation. The flashback scenes throb with misery and dread. As Scott, Shaun Dingwall perfectly captures the bitter toxicity of a certain kind of man, slashing and burning his way through a pathetic life, thriving on the terror he causes in others.

To my mind, the alternating of this timeline with the other dissipates the emotional tension and narrative torque, especially as this film’s court scenes are thin, dry things and the fine actors in them – including Michelle Fairley as the barrister Kerry and Stephen Campbell Moore as the child psychologist Dr Keaton – are given little to work with. She is there mostly to deliver snippets of legalese and look pained; he to look frustrated and avow on the stand that a child’s brain is less developed than an adult’s. The lack of detail (Ray’s team reacts with horror, for example, when Nathan decides not to give evidence, but we are not told what it means, although it is clearly not good; the failure of social services is presented as a given) raises distracting questions about the process when we should be focusing on Ray.

There are clunky moments scattered about, too, when the pedagogic intent overrides the dramatic. “If you were 30 years old with your mind,” Kerry tells Ray at one point, “you’d be judged not fit to stand trial. But you’re not, Ray.” It’s a point made purely for the viewer’s benefit – for the character to utter it in that context serves no purpose other than to burden her 12-year-old client with further appreciation of the relentless absurdity and injustice of the world.

But if the first hour slows the pace and keeps the viewer at a slight distance, the last half-hour pulls things together – and us in. The interrogation of Ray on the stand, interspersed with memories from the night of the murder, followed by the two timelines collapsing after the trial as Ray suffers nightmares in his cell, brings everything home. Debbie Honeywood, as the boys’ mother, gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of a woman numbed, her selfhood utterly corroded after years of suffering and abuse from Scott and – we suspect – Ray and Nathan’s alcoholic father. The brief scene between her and Ray after the verdict is truly harrowing.

It works, overall, as drama. Will it work as agitprop? Will it prompt movement on the enduring injustice of judging children by the same standards as adults in trials? Ray, one of his team points out, is still years away from being legally able to buy a hamster. Who is responsible for this travesty? And who will take responsibility for change?

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