Books: Visions Before Midnight — Problem Children | clivejames.com
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Problem Children

Mirth-quelling stories of unhappy children dominated the week, moving the average viewer to bless his own luck, while cursing luck itself.

Carol’s Story (BBC1) was a Midweek Special filmed by Angela Pope on behalf of the National Children’s Home, which is to receive the fee. One trusts it will be princely. Actresses re-created the life of a woman who had been brought up in deprived circumstances, sick for affection, and who was now passing on the same deprivation to her own children. It was a familiar story but sharply told, leaving you with a clear picture of unhappiness breeding itself in geometrical progression. The responsible social worker was doing his admirable best to reverse what looked dispiritingly like a one-way tide.

An ‘Inside Story’ called Mini (BBC2) dealt with an altogether less recognisable case, who superficially was not so depressing, but who in the long run got you down equally thoroughly. Michael, alias ‘Mini’, is a handsome, clever, inventive eleven-year-old with the enchantingly gravelly screen presence of the ‘fifties child star, George Winslow. Running dialectical rings around his earnest interlocuters, he performed for the cameras with the most astonishing ease. He is a natural actor. He is also a firebug, who on two occasions has tried to burn his own house down while his father was asleep upstairs.

At the Aycliffe Assessment Centre, dedicated attempts were made to uncover Mini’s motivations. ‘Why do you steal fire lighters, or is that a stupid question?’ ‘No, it’s a reasonable question.’ It is very easy to sit at home offering gratuitous advice when worried specialists and desperate parents are grappling with a problem apt to burst into flames at any moment, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mini was simply too bright for his surroundings. His parents, obviously good folk both, pathetically tried to put God into him, when it should have been plain that he wasn’t having any.

And the psychologists (who will read this with scorn) might have at least considered the possibility that Mini, on his own evidence, is more creative than destructive. The theatre is in his blood. A sawn-off Max Reinhardt, he arranged a song-and-dance routine for his sisters. Round-eyed he recounted the overwhelmingness of his pyrogenetic urge when he discovered a fireplace full of crushed-up newspapers, plus a virgin box of matches on the mantelpiece. ‘I thought: this is too much temptation. It’s got to happen!’ He’s a dazzling kid, the best company you could wish for. Unfortunately if you take your eye off him he’ll burn you to the ground. At the end of the programme he was being shipped away, for extended treatment. One way or another we shall be hearing from him again, I hope, or fear.

15 June, 1975