Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Dementia and Child Abuse are hot drama themes right now - I wish they weren’t

I used a sexually abused young girl as the central character in a horror novel many moons ago. A critic described my treatment of the girl as “conscienceless”.

I was furious and defensive for a few weeks after reading that comment, but eventually realised that it was, in fact, spot on. I’d chosen the subject simply because I knew it would engage and horrify the reader: it was an easy option. (And the book sold well.)
Ten years after that, I was trying to follow up a much better but poorer-selling novel with something grabbier. Once again, I reached for the child abuse option – and only realised what I’d done after posting a synopsis to my agent. (They hated it, so I didn’t have to write it - the only time I’ve felt even vaguely relieved to have a proposal rejected.)

Since those days, some twenty years ago, child abuse has become the most popular theme – apart from serial killers – in contemporary crime fiction. I get the impression that it appears as a key element in at least 20% of crime novels and TV dramas. 

Frankly, it’s starting to irritate me.

Waking the Dead’s final ever episode on BBC One a few weeks back was all about the torture and killing of street kids. That wonderful Danish series,The Killing, was about the sexually-motivated murder of a schoolgirl. The last series of Spiral featured a father sleeping with his daughter. The lastGeorge Gently I caught was about abuse at a children’s home. The last series based on David Peace’s Red Riding novels was all about systematic child abuse…and, of course, there was lots and lots of it in the Swedish trilogy which kicked off with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I’m sorry to admit that now, when I realise that the plot of something I’m reading or watching is going to turn on child abuse, I tend to groan and think “Oh God, not again!” 

Child abuse is an utterly horrendous crime on every single imaginable level. The very mention of it enrages and disgusts any vaguely normal human being. And that’s the problem: using it as a plot device time and time again simply cheapens, debases and exploits the sheer horror of it all. Crime writers and dramatists and publishers and TV commissioners really need to show some self-control by refusing to go for the easy option whenever invention flags and they want to lend their entertainments a spurious patina of seriousness: it’s become such a commonplace theme, even quality writers and dramatists need to start limiting their use of it. Child abuse is simply too important and too painful a subject to be routinely exploited in this way.

I also wonder if the amount of crime drama on TV involving paedophiles and child-killers - as well as the almost gleeful obsession with paedophile priests amongst our anti-religious chattering classes – hasn’t led to an over-zealous but no doubt useless scrutiny of any adult who comes into contact with children. If the authorities really wanted to protect children, they’d stop releasing convicted sex offenders from prison on the say-so of unscrupulously optimist psychiatrists,  liberal probation service workers and wet parole board members.

I also have a problem with the ubiquitousness of dementia as a theme in contemporary radio, TV and film drama. (Radio 4 Woman’s Hour is currently running a series of monologues adapted from conversations with victims.) As our longevity inexorably increases, more and more of us are losing our marbles before we succumb. Both my parents died early enough for them not to go through this awful process – and I must be honest and admit I’m grateful that they, and I, were spared such a dreadful fate. But many people close to me have either been through the agony of watching a loved one’s identity virtually disappearing before their eyes , or are going through it right now.

I’m sure most of the writers and dramatists who tackle child abuse have never had any immediate experience of it (thank God!). But I would imagine that many of those choosing dementia (and, in particular, Alzheimer’s) have seen it erase a parent’s memories and personality. It’s hard to imagine anything worse, and it’s natural that writers should seek to make sense of such a cruel experience by turning it into drama. The condition offers certain dramatic possibilities – especially the chance to examine what it is that makes us us – but the subject is essentially depressing and horrible, and, ultimately, not really that dramatic. 

Producing drama about dementia is no doubt cathartic for the creator, and commissioners no doubt feel they’re doing something “brave” and “important” when they greenlight these projects – but I suspect I’m not the only one who feels compassion fatigue setting in. 


  1. Let’s call this person close to me “David”. That’s not his real name. But it’ll do.

    The psychiatric social worker turns up to assess David, aged 80+, at his home and opens by saying to him that she wants him to remember three words -- “man”, “house” and “car”. Then she asks him if he knows what floor of the house he’s on, what season of the year it is, who the prime minister is, and so on. Then she shows him some pictures of common objects and asks him to identify them. It’s all over in about 15 minutes, and can he remember the three words? No. He was quite tetchy about some of the questions (“I don’t need to know that”). That was David on a good day. A year later, his GP was signing letters saying that there was no sign of intellectual activity, David’s wife was exhausted trying to look after him and we placed him in the nicest home we could find. Conversation with him is impossible, we can’t understand the noises he makes and a typical report from her after his wife visits him is “he recognised me, he knew it was me, he smiled”. Did he? Or was it wind? We’re back to six week-old babies.

    John Suchet, talking about his wife’s Alzheimer’s, nailed it. She’s dead. So is David. Everyone around them is going through a protracted bereavement with the added complication that the body’s still warm.

    All of that is well known and already too well ventilated on TV.

    But we all know what the unventilated question behind these programmes is. The unspeakable question. What’s the point?

    Maybe it’s best left unasked. Some idiot will only try to come up with an answer.

    But we can’t rely on it being left unasked. Going back to babies, or further, to foetuses, the pass has already been sold. Hundreds of thousands of abortions are conducted every year. So much for life being sacred. How long before we have hundreds of thousands of terminations at the other end of life?

    We already terminate some. I agreed to terminated one myself. The life of someone a darned sight closer to me than David. This being the UK, the interview was conducted in the stairwell outside the intensive care department. It was conducted with great sensitivity by the consultant and his registrar. (11 years after the event, I’ve just broken down again. What is it about the gronblog that makes everyone talk about crying? Are we all becoming Norwegian?)

    I predict that the TV programmes will gradually move the “Dignitas” question forwards. It’ll be fluffed for years. There’ll be Royal Commissions. And then there will be forms, and teams and managers and, above all, there will be the queen of lugubrious whining, Winifred Robinson, complaining on You and Yours that the service is better in NW3 than Liverpool, where dedicated public servants are having trouble meeting their targets by the 31 March deadline (to coin a phrase).

    There was something human about that stairwell and, the way I remember it, we all ended up trying to comfort the poor bloody registrar.

    There was something human about the waiting room outside intensive care. The devastated couple whose 30-something year-old son had been thrown out of a fairground ride and whose stairwell interview included the request to use his healthy young organs for transplants. The vast extended Fulham family of the fireman who’d fallen off a second floor balcony having had too much to drink at a party, all in their best gypsy jewellery, all poking fun at my accent until I told them I actually come from World’s End, so that was alright.

    There won’t be anything human about Ed Balls’s comprehensive spending review announcing the EU directive termination targets for the North-West based on figures provided by Lord KPMG, for whose report he would like to express his thanks. But I expect it’ll all be for our own good.
    Thursday, May 12, 2011 - 11:50 AM

  2. Your comment on the repetitive application of the child abuse theme. This afternoon I turned on Radio 4 and then turned it off again. I looked the programme up in the Radio Times : "2.15. Afternoon Play. Every Child Matters.By Christopher Reason. Six months after a women was caught exhibiting her 10-year old daughter to paedophiles over the internet, the social worker criticized in the tabloids for her involvement in the case questions why she was left to take the blame."

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 - 08:23 PM

  3. Doesn't it all come down to quality of writing and acting. At the moment, dementia and child abuse are rather like the themes of abortion, interracial relationships and homosexuality were to the dramatists of the 60s: "it's my duty as a playwright to rip the facade of respectability off your corrupt and repressed society by forcing you to confront reality". Cue lots of dreary, gritty drama, much of it set oop North, lashings of daring sensationalism to get the Mail headline writers going and some good stuff too.

    I have just finished watching Our Friends Up North, a 1996 series which I missed at the time. I wish I had seen it then because the outstanding performance by the actor Peter Vaughan as a proud working man reduced to imbecility through dementia would have helped me reflect on the real life equivalent I was trying to cope with at the time, in much the same circumstances as DM has described. As it is, I have found myself thinking a lot since about how fiction illuminates reality, which must be one of the purposes for which you writers torture yourselves, as described in your excellent post on the horrors of the creative process.
    Saturday, May 14, 2011 - 08:42 AM

  4. I forgot to mention that in the new BBC2 crime series, The Shadow Line, the youngish wife of Christiopher Eccleston's character is suffering from dementia.

    And I'd better admit that my wife - no fan of the knee-jerk use of tear-jerk devices in drama - tells me that the Woman's Hour monolkugues were superb.
    Tuesday, May 17, 2011 - 02:04 PM

  5. That should have been "monologue" (dementia?) and today's new afternoon play on Radio 4 is about - yup - dementia!
    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 - 02:24 PM