There was one sort of taboo which writers of television crime dramas rarely broke, and that was to focus the plot on the abuse or killing of children. Instead they preferred to thrill the viewers with what film censors call “scenes of peril” usually involving the murder, or lurid torture-and-murder, of women.
That was considered shocking enough. But now, presumably, audiences’ appetites are dulled by repeated exposure, and need ever more extreme stimulation. Added to this, there are many more channels, offering more outré fare, with intellectually challenging plots and edgier or more “transgressive” ideas.
So for the past couple of years the recurrent theme in television suspense series has been missing children, and since there is no longer a requirement for a happy ending, they may have been murdered as well, or subjected to unspeakable horrors.
On ITV we’ve just had Marcella, starring Anna Friel as an unstable police detective investigating children who are found with mysterious wooden discs stitched into their stomachs. Before that there was Kiri, with Sarah Lancashire superb as a fag-puffing social worker who loses a child under her supervision.
There have been two series of The Missing and a new one from America (on the Universal channel) with the equally self-explanatory title Gone.
On Sky Atlantic you can watch Save Me, featuring Lennie James as an absent father who becomes obsessed with finding the missing child whom he never bothered with when she was around. It co-stars Suranne Jones from Doctor Foster, which was another family-destruction series. Save Me is bleak stuff, but it has been such a success that apparently a second series has already been commissioned.
Last year alone there were no less than three dramatisations of real-life crimes against children: The Moorside, about the abducted schoolgirl Shannon Matthews, Little Boy Blue (the shooting of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool), and Three Girls (the Rochdale grooming scandal).
Some of these productions, you could argue, are trashy, exploitative and formulaic, aimed at stimulating a sort of delicious prurient wallowing in others’ heartrending loss. But, equally, others are serious dramas, as powerfully affecting as the finest films. (Mind you, since many bloated multi-episode series are much longer than films, the plots tend to be padded with endless cliffhangers and reversals.)
However good or bad these shows are as art, what is it about the storylines that makes us devour them so eagerly? I think they must reflect an anxiety about children, about how we treat them, and about the nuclear family and threats to its security.
One recent Canadian drama, The Disappearance (Universal channel), wrapped up all our modern worries in one package: a young boy is abducted on the very day his parents, tears pouring in rivulets down their cheeks, sign their divorce papers. “You don’t break up a family!” pleads the grandfather (Peter Coyote) in vain; his words will later resound with horrible ironic significance.
Anyone who has read Desmond Morris knows that it is a feature of humans that the unusually prolonged childhood requires that the parents stay together for many years to provide stability as they rear their offspring. And yet, according to the Marriage Foundation, a child born today in Britain has only a 50-50 chance of being with both its birth parents by the age of 15, and children are more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home.
Everyone has friends who have felt they had no choice but to split up. This may happen at the point when their children are at their most emotionally tender, and however hard the parents try to protect them, the innocent offspring may find themselves at the centre of a tornado of hatred, savagery and recrimination, where all normal rules of good behaviour are abandoned. Children who suffer parental divorce are at a higher risk of social and psychological problems later in their lives.
No one wants to judge, and such are the pressures of life today, it might happen to you or me next. But we know there’s something wrong.
That may explain why, as families break down with increasing frequency, children are pampered and their playtime monitored as never before. The family itself is idealised, sentimentalised, fetishised – as if we must all aspire to be the rake-thin yummy mummy who manages it all with not a flicker of stress, or the perfect hands-on dad, toddler carried proudly on his Boden-clad shoulders.
And at the day’s end, for an evening’s escapism, we settle down with some popcorn and this week’s missing child drama.
Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
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