Tuesday 23 February 2021

Dramarama: A Couple of Charlies

Children's television can be a powerful format, one which holds no punches and holds up the grim reality of life as a child to the camera. Shows such as Grange Hill, Byker Grove and the somewhat overlooked Children's Ward all excelled when it came to peeling away the layers of innocence that society has been so keen to weld tightly to childhood. Another series of note is Dramarama. Running between 1982 - 89, Dramarama was an ITV anthology series which tackled numerous genres for a young audience. Whilst there was room for comedy, sci-fi and the supernatural, there was also time to tackle the harsh realities of life in powerful dramas. And one of these was A Couple of Charlies. 

Charlie (Tom Hescott) is a kind natured, but naive young man who is far from popular at his primary school. Prone to flights of fancy, Charlie inadvertently alienates himself from his classmates and is positioned as the classic school outcast. One morning, at a 'bring your pet to school' day, Charlie's classmate Sam (James Boaden) brings in his pet rabbit. The runt of a litter, Sam's rabbit hasn't even been dignified with a name and is unwanted by Sam and his sister Alice (Keeley Coxon). Sensing a kinship with the rabbit's situation, Charlie is instantly smitten with becoming his owner. But Charlie's mother is a strict disciplinarian with no time for household pets.

Life at home is no simpler for Charlie with his mother (Pippa Guard) and her new husband (Garry Cooper) expecting a baby. This scenario has pushed Charlie further to the sidelines and opens him up to both mental and physical abuse from his parents. Desperate to establish a relationship which works both ways, Charlie decides to steal Sam and Alice's rabbit which has now been named Charlie - a dig at both Charlies' uselessness i.e. a couple of Charlies. After a disastrous initial raid which sees him pummelled into the mud by Sam, Charlie eventually succeeds in liberating his long-eared namesake. However, once Charlie's parents discover what has happened there is only one answer: physical punishment courtesy of his stepfather's belt. Witnessing this attack, which leaves Charlie black and blue, is Sam and Alice. But will they have the courage to inform their teacher, Miss Mitchell (Isabelle Amyes)?

Airing as part of Dramarama's fourth series in July 1986, A Couple of Charlies was produced by Central Television (each series had contributions from most of the ITV franchises). The script came courtesy from Grazyna Monvid who had previously submitted the Dramarama episodes Night of the Narrow Boats and Josephine Jo in 1984. Monvid would later contribute the episodes Just a Normal Girl and Snap Decision in 1988 and 1989 respectively. To provide insight and guidance on the themes of Charlie's narrative, an NSPCC adviser was involved with the production.

All a child wants is to be happy, but for Charlie this is a premise which seems unobtainable at the start of A Couple of Charlies. Instantly marked out as an unwanted presence in the playground, where he is shoved and shunted to the back of the class line, Charlie struggles with bullying at home as well as school. Whilst the bullying at school is despicable, a fact magnified by the innocence exuded from cherubic Charlie, it's the unpleasantness of Charlie's homelife that Monvid ramps up with a visceral brutality. Treated as an inconvenience by his mother and step-father, Charlie is routineley emasculated, ridiculed and beaten. And Monvid, along with Central, are to be applauded for the brutal reality laid bare on the screen. It's a bitter pill to swallow at 4.45pm in the afternoon, but abuse has never been time dependent. More pertinently, by allowing the horrors of this abuse to manifest itself in the young audiences imagination, there's a strong emotional response which underlines the fact that this abuse is unacceptable. And that there's always help available.

The belt beating scene is clearly the most shocking and uncomfortable moment of A Couple of Charlies. In fact, it may be one of the most brutal scenes of children's television that I've witnessed. As Charlie protests over 'his' rabbit's rightful return to Sam and Alice, his furious mother drags him into the front room as she venomously chastises him for being "a dirty little thief" before Charlie's stepfather manhandles him to the sofa and beats him with a belt. It's soundtracked by the anguished screams of Charlie and is heartbreaking. Devastatingly heartbreaking. Monvid, however, uses this stark moment to begin penning some redemption for Sam and Alice. Visibly shaken by what they've witnessed, you can see in their eyes that they know the line of discipline has been overstepped.

Following consultation with Miss Mitchell, played with fantastic warmth by Isabelle Amyes, Sam begins to step out of the shadow of abuse. The closing credits demonstrate a Charlie whose life is much improved, playing gaily with Sam and Alice whilst the final shot is of Charlie's beaming, smiling face. Unburdened by the harsh reality of abuse, it's a heartwarming end to the drama. And, testament again to Monvid, it's remarkably well paced and intricate for a 25 minute drama. You could argue that 50 minutes would have allowed more characterisation and room for the plot to breathe, but that's not what A Couple of Charlies is aiming for. Instead, it's a thrilling shot of drama administered roughly and directly into the limbic system. A brave moment for children's television and one that everyone involved with should be proud of.

1 comment:

  1. I caught this at the BFI Mediatheque about a year ago and thought it was fantastic. Dramarama as a whole really does deserve to be more widely seen, but since the Network DVD a few years ago - teasingly named 'Volume One' - it doesn't look like any more will be released.