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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Raw nerves

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 been describing.

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 niche.

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 bell tolls.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993

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