17 December 2019 00:35
It is possible that you are not in the best place to deal with more bad news about Britain and its enduring commitment to moral failure. Responsible Child (BBC Two) is a drama built around one extraordinary fact – that, in England and Wales, children as young as 10 can be tried for murder as if they were adults. Think for a moment of any 10-year-olds you know and imagine them in crown court being assumed to have the capacity of a grown man or woman. That is the year, incidentally, that the UN pointed out that having such a young age of criminal responsibility was incompatible with the UK's obligations, as part of said UN, on children's rights. Responsible Child was written by Sean Buckley (who penned Skins) and directed by the documentary-maker Nick Holt, in his first foray into drama.
It draws from a variety of cases, but is perhaps most directly based on the 2014 case of Jerome Ellis, aged 14, and his 23-year-old brother, Joshua, who stabbed their abusive stepfather to death as he lay on the family sofa. The drama follows the story of 12-year-old Ray (Billy Barratt, an actor the same age as his character, who turns in a credible and heartbreaking performance) and his 23-year-old brother, Nathan (James Tarpey doing likewise), living under the tyranny of their mother's boyfriend, Scott. The preparation for Ray's trial plays out in the present. We flash back repeatedly to the events that led him there, from the "ordinary" fear the boys live with under Scott's rule, to Scott's armed attack on Nathan, for which he is charged with attempted murder – only for charges to be dropped and Scott to return to the home more furious than ever. The flashback scenes throb with misery and dread.
As Scott, Shaun Dingwall perfectly captures the bitter toxicity of a certain kind of man, slashing and burning his way through a pathetic life, thriving on the terror he causes in others. To my mind, the alternating of this timeline with the other dissipates the emotional tension and narrative torque, especially as this film's court scenes are thin, dry things and the fine actors in them – including Michelle Fairley as the barrister Kerry and Stephen Campbell Moore as the child psychologist Dr Keaton – are given little to work with. The lack of detail (Ray's team reacts with horror, for example, when Nathan decides not to give evidence, but we are not told what it means, although it is clearly not good; the failure of social services is presented as a given) raises distracting questions about the process when we should be focusing on Ray. There are clunky moments scattered about, too, when the pedagogic intent overrides the dramatic. "If you were 30 years old with your mind," Kerry tells Ray at one point, "you'd be judged not fit to stand trial. But you're not, Ray." It's a point made purely for the viewer's benefit – for the character to utter it in that context serves no purpose other than to burden her 12-year-old client with further appreciation of the relentless absurdity and injustice of the world. The interrogation of Ray on the stand, interspersed with memories from the night of the murder, followed by the two timelines collapsing after the trial as Ray suffers nightmares in his cell, brings everything home. Debbie Honeywood, as the boys' mother, gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of a woman numbed, her selfhood utterly corroded after years of suffering and abuse from Scott and – we suspect – Ray and Nathan's alcoholic father. The brief scene between her and Ray after the verdict is truly harrowing. It works, overall, as drama. Will it work as agitprop? Will it prompt movement on the enduring injustice of judging children by the same standards as adults in trials? Ray, one of his team points out, is still years away from being legally able to buy a hamster. Who is responsible for this travesty? And who will take responsibility for change? According to the United Nations, an adult court is an unsuitable arena in which to try a child, even if that child were to be charged with murder. The dock, after all, is a lonely place, exposing anyone who enters it to the fiercest glare. The 90-minute drama Responsible Child (BBC Two) gave that stance a necessary cross-examination – necessary because, for sufficiently serious offences, the English, Welsh and Northern Irish justice systems are still able to subject minors as young as 10 years old to a full trial by jury. Sean Buckley's harrowing script was based on a real but unnamed case of two brothers (one 12 years old, one 23) who killed their violent stepfather in his sleep. Responsible Child, BBC2, review: Factual drama about a child tried for murder lacked the nuance to provide any real insight Despite a fine performance from Billy Barratt, this drama about a child tried for murder failed to interrogate a controversial subject Billy Barratt as Ray McCullin, flanked by his defence barrister (Michelle Fairley), in Responsible Child (Photo: Ed Miller) Responsible Child, BBC Two, 9pm ★★★ It wasn't until the final few moments of Responsible Child, a one-off factual drama directed by Nick Holt, that we witnessed the murder around which the plot revolved. It was, said one character, "as brutal as I've ever seen". Most shocking, though, was that this act of depravity had been carried out, in part, by Ray (Billy Barratt), a cherubic 12-year-old boy. The question at the heart of this film, which switched between shots of Ray preparing for court and flashbacks to his ragged home life, was whether or not children should be tried for murder as adults, in accordance with the Children and Young Persons Act 1963. Unfortunately, Responsible Child, based on the case of Jerome Ellis in 2014 and written by Skins' Sean Buckley, lacked the nuance to provide real insight. At no point during the 96 minutes was the writer's position – that children should not be tried for murder as adults – properly interrogated. Billy Barratt as Ray in Responsible Child (Photo: Ed Miller) Characters were reduced to stereotypes to fit the narrative. The victim, Ray's stepfather Scott (Shaun Dingwall), was a violent alcoholic. Barratt, however, produced an extraordinary central performance as Ray. Steely resolve and a destructive hatred of his stepfather bubbled away beneath an innocent vulnerability. Covered in blood following the murder, Ray stole a few, final moments of freedom on his tree swing. A child now; a frenzied killer seconds before.