Streets Ahead

This is one of my favourites among the pieces I’ve done for The Guardian.  You can see it on their site, with comments, here.

Thursday evening’s final instalment of Jimmy McGovern’s The Street, described by Nancy Banks-Smith as “just about perfect” was superbly acted and written. It was also the most moving piece of television drama to be broadcast this year.

For those who missed it, the story centred around 22-year-old Paul, recently released from jail having been responsible, 12 years earlier, for the murder of a baby after accidentally causing the death of the infant’s grandmother and then, over a period of days, allowing the hungry child to drift into unconsciousness before burying it the garden while still alive.

Given a new identity, Paul, played by Toby Kebbell, is tracked down by the baby’s mother Jean (Jodhi May) and, through the crack in the chain-guarded door of his bedsit, they each recount the tragedy as it unfolded from their parallel perspectives. Paul, unable to live with his guilt, is set on suicide. Jean berates him for assuming his guilt to be harder to live with than her grief. She wants him to live, to have a child of his own, and to bring it up to be the most loved and good-natured child in the world, so he might discover what it feels like to love and to be loved, and therefore to understand what she has lost. Only this way could her child’s death have meaning.

By an interesting coincidence, this week I received a copy of an email chain letter that has been circulating since 2001. It took the form of a petition against the high court decision to grant anonymity to Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the murderers, in 1993, of Jamie Bulger.

No matter that the email was a hoax, no matter that the description of their hideous crime was cruelly exaggerated. What struck me was that the email is still doing the rounds six years after it was first released, sustained by the vicarious lust for revenge and retribution of thousands of ordinary people.

It’s impossible to say with certainty what turns children into violent killers. Many people survive dreadful early years deprivation and abuse without becoming violent criminals. Nonetheless, when the childhood background of murderers and psychopaths are investigated, evidence is routinely unearthed of neglect and a profound absence of love and nurturing when it is most needed.

What we can say with more certitude is that if a child is loved, and made to feel valued and secure, then it is many times less likely to turn to violent crime than a child who is denied those benefits. This single piece of common sense is the simple message of Paul and Jean’s story. It will be dismissed by some as the speculative musings of a dramatist with no direct experience of the loss of a loved one at the hands of an amoral killer, but the message remains true.

The collective thirst for revenge without understanding is both a symptom of, and a reinforcing factor in, our inability as a society to make the connection between the denial of love to children and the consequence that some turn into monsters. Very occasionally, due to misfortune in the genetic lottery, an individual is born with a condition that pushes them towards criminal behaviour. But most of the time evil acts are committed by people who, had their early life experience been different, might instead be living happy, normal lives.

It is not simply a question of forgiveness, but of moral strength and the ability to confront the truth. When Jean told Paul how she wanted him to live the rest of his life, she was not forgiving him, she was demanding that he make amends in the most human way possible. She was asking him to prove to himself, and to the world, that the vicious circle through which the harmed do harm to others can be broken.

There are plenty of similar stories in the real world, stories that remind us there is hope. That hope is reinforced by the fact that the BBC is still prepared to schedule a drama on such a polarising and controversial subject. It is a welcome sign that society continues to make stuttering moral progress.