Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV
Last month I said that the nation was twitching in the grip of a collective
psychosis. This month
there is a TV series which is fiddling on the raw nerves of that crisis.
Century Falls (Children's BBC) tells the story of a Pennine village
in which there are no children, the result of some atrocity which took place
there 40 years ago. The trauma has given the villagers psychic powers but
left them all barren. They live forever in the shadow of the past, with
no hope of renewal.
Then the local squire brings his nephew and niece to stay, and a pregnant
woman and her teenage daughter move in. These incoming children are both
feared and desired. They are a taunting, dangerous presence that might unlock
the door of memory. At the same time, they offer the possibility of escape
from the tyranny of the past. It's a version of The Prisoner for
the eighties, with atrophy and decay in place of conspiracy and deception.
The acting is wooden to the point of ritual and the script humourless as
a sacrament. A worn-out community enthralled by guilt and history, physically
incapable of any sort of future - it's like watching the News.
The image of a town with no children is a particularly poignant one in Liverpool,
after the murder of James Bulger. Whatever else was wrong with this city,
it was always very big on children. Working class mothers here subscribed
to a fashion cult I have never seen anywhere else, namely, Antoinetting.
This involves smothering every inch of their baby girls (from hat to socks
and even pushchair wheels and rain covers) in net frills, so that they look
like Marie Antoinette on First Communion day. The semiotics of the style
code are clear. These are not people who are going to let their children
take second place.
This is not just a case of the powerless compensating for their lack of
status by breeding potentates. Go to the most austerely trendy jazz bar
and you will find toddlers running around. At least they would have been
running around until a few weeks ago. Now everywhere you look, kids are
straining and panting like pit bulls on leads or firmly strapped to their
pushchairs like Hannibal Lecter on his restraining frame. Nobody is going
to let their children out of their sight round here any more. I can give
you other images: the local papers suddenly swollen to Sunday Times proportions
by page after page of condolence notices; the half a mile of railway track
buried overnight in flowers; the thick black smoke uncurling from votive
racks where there are normally only a couple of slim candles. For the other
thing about Liverpool is that it is a city that has learned how to mourn.
But this is not a local matter and the images that count are not the ones
I see on the street, but those you see on the screen: James being led away
to his death on a security video; the little illuminated tent covering his
body; the mob outside the courtroom. The stories that have been built around
these pictures are different from the simple ones of loss and fear I have
First of all there was the Liverpool angle. This took its cue from two 'mob'
incidents, the first in Snowdrop Street, the second outside the court. I
have no time for courtroom mobs; I've always assumed that they were composed
largely of the same nutters who turn out for the Queen Mother's birthday
and so on. But I have never seen the media disapprove of a courtroom mob
before. This time everyone from the BBC to the Sun homed in on it,
suggesting that this was a further glimpse of the violent environment which
did for Jamie. It was not enough that this had happened to us. We had to
be blamed for it as well.
But the story proved too mesmerising to leave it to Liverpool. By the weekend,
the Mail on Sunday had tried to raise the issues to a universal level
by hiring a Nobel laureate - William Golding - to discuss the implications
of the case. Golding said 'I told you so' and shamelessly used the death
to puff his old novel.
The vision of feral packs of Lords of the Flies in shell suits, brains fried
by Nintendo, stomachs full of pot noodle, roaming Britain's shopping malls
became part of a new moral iconography. There were promises to crack down
on young offenders and their useless parents (this from politicians who
dump their kids in public schools knowing that they are going to be raped
and flogged). Major asked for less understanding and more condemnation, blaming
the sixties and soft social workers. Except of course these kids were only
born in the eighties and the last big social worker story was 'Pin down'.
There is the rub. There have been child murderers before, and, of course,
children have been murdered before. But this story has an extraordinary
resonance because the issues it appears to raise and the landscape in which
it took place seem inextricably bound up with the current moral order, with
the choices the nation has made.
It didn't happen on the Lancashire moors, but in the shopping mall, the
sanctuary of the consumer society. The mall is to civic life what the enclosures
of the seventeenth century were to rural life. Where the High Street was
a thoroughfare and the Market Square a meeting place, the mall is a cul
de sac with security guards on the door and surveillance cameras in every
The fortified mall made it possible to attract big-name chains into run-down
areas (if there's a riot you just close the main doors) where land was cheap
and parking plentiful, and thus, in theory, regenerate the inner city through
the service sector. The Metro in Gateshead and the Meadowhall in Sheffield
were hailed as the Chartres and Notre Dame of the consumer economy. These
were not the hideous precincts of the sixties, but places where shopping
was promoted as a peaceful, life-enhancing pursuit, a kind of meditative
exercise played out amid waterfalls and banana plants, beneath cascades
of ambient muzak.
Of course we know now that the service economy did not work, that places
like Bootle are as bad as ever. The murder of James Bulger is a hideous
announcement of the failure of mall culture. The images from the Strand
Shopping Centre security video (what kind of security and whose?)--'enhanced
by Gulf War technology' - leave you with a humiliating sense of impotence.
Here is footage of a child being walked to his death. What use is it? It's
a horrible insight into the full implications of the idea of 'society as
spectacle'. The Bulger case is a new version of the old modern myth about
the baby-sitter who is terrorised by obscene phone calls, bolts all the
windows and doors and then discovers that the caller is in the house with
her. Except the killers are not merely in the mall, but of it, bred by the
mall's own culture, wearing its clothes, the culture that Britain elected.
I have no idea whether this feeling is true. I have no idea whether the
boys arrested were guilty or not. The thing that is indisputable is the
depth of fear which the case has revealed. The morbid fascination with the
death (GMTV kept going over live to the funeral on the day as though it
were an emergency debate in the commons), people's eagerness to believe
the worst, to have their nightmares confirmed gives a worrying impression
of a society terrified for and of its own children, a society in fear of
itself. The collective feelings unleashed by the killing are a salutary
reminder: there is no such thing as an individual, ask not for whom the
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993