Forget the chill in the air or the back to school traffic. You really know it’s autumn when ITV roll out their three part drama.
The Children, which has been heavily trailed on the channel in the last few weeks, stars Kevin ‘Lewis’ Whatley and Geraldine ‘Panhandle’ Somerville as a couple starting again after their first marriages have broken down.
Cam (Whatley) has a troubled fourteen year old son, Jack. Sue (Somerville) has a seven year old daughter, Emily. “To new starts and new families” Sue toasts as Cam leaves his bachelor life behind and moves into her house. Sorry Sue, but if I know my ITV three parters, things aren’t going to go quite as swimmingly as all that.
And they don’t. For one thing Jack’s mum, Anne (played by the always wonderful Lesley Sharp) is explosive, erratic and, aged forty, still going on the kind of girls nights out where you set your drink alight before downing it. Keen to foster a new relationship with a guy from work (Paul Burrell-a-like Owen Teale) she chucks her wayward son out, and he’s forced into an uneasy fit with his dad’s new family.
Meanwhile Emily’s dad, ambitious radio presenter Paul (Ian Puleston-Davies) has a new baby with younger partner Natasha and his loyalties are torn between this new responsibility and his career, with little attention left for his daughter.
As tensions mount and relationships, both new and old, become fraught, it’s only a matter of time before something terrible happens. The twist to The Children is that we already know what it is. The first episode began with Emily’s body being found in a garden, before returning to events leading up to her death. The question isn’t what will happen, then, but how.
And so we find the characters three months earlier, and follow the jagged pattern of their fractured families. Both Cam and Paul have left their wives for younger women. Both are pre-occupied with their work. Cam is annoyingly boisterous and deliberately obtuse. Paul grates too. As well as who killed the child, the mystery might also be why the two women seem so bitter about being rid of these guys. Personally, I’d have been putting out the bunting.
After each segment set in the present The Children flips forwards to after Emily’s death, with some spooky shots of the child on a swing and, at Episode 1’s close, the sight of her cracking her head through a patio window. So now we know how, but not who. It’s an interesting approach, this, by director David Evans though it does remind me of Lost in that, once we’re aware of her eventual death, the flash forwards add little to the story and actually detract from the tension, with last episode’s featuring an incongruently flippant policeman, lots of crying and little else of import.
What really works is The Children’s convincing depiction of parents who, in pursuit of their own happiness, are oblivious to the neglect of the children shoehorned into these non nuclear families, and made to witness their parents' bitterness and anger first hand. Middle class and ostensibly comfortable, the jaded, harassed adults think the children have it easy. Meanwhile, the children are suffering, ill equipped to deal with the emotional fallout and given far too much responsibility.
Well written, intelligent and well acted all round, The Children this isn’t exactly edge of your seat stuff - despite it’s novel murder-mystery premise, rather a lot of the intrigue is lost simple because we already know the ultimate outcome, though things looks set to crank up a gear this week as Emily takes advantage of the collapsing relationships by manipulating the adults around her.
But ultimately the series is at its most compelling when depicting the actions of the adults, offering a well written, sad and alarming account of the non-nuclear family, where, the programme suggests, there’s little to tell between the adults and the children. Must have made for some uncomfortable viewing in living rooms across Middle England.
The Children, ITV, 9pm