Nature Boy

Monday, February 14, 2000 by

Radio Times has been a poor barometer for quality drama recently, often times appearing more like the BBC’s barrow boy (pushing shonky goods such asGormenghast and po-facedly reprimanding the competition’s Queer as Folk 2). So it is doubly satisfying to chance upon a piece of drama that is pushed by the BBC’s propaganda machine.

It is difficult to locate the author’s motivations from the first episode, and comparisons to Nature Boy‘s obvious source of inspiration Kes do not wholly account for the sequence of events played out in episode one. Certainly it is clear to see that writer Bryan Elsley has something to say regarding urbanisation, yet quite how his message will gain distinction is not yet clear. The central plot (that of the child’s search for an absent parent) is also an unremarkable peg on which to hang a story. David’s edification of his father (as well as the directorial tricks employed to allow us to slip into David’s recollections) is something that those well versed in contemporary drama will have encountered many times before. Yet there is a magnetism to Lee Ingleby’s central performance that satiates enough to ensure he has our sympathies from his first appearance. He plays David with quiet dignity and a harsh compassion like nature itself. His gift of a fish to the family of Lee Wai Keung (a Chinese boy terrorised by his classmates) is a noble gesture and not a saccharine one.

Make no mistake this is an imperfect drama. A legion of cruel characters and too many cruel acts populate the initial episode. Even David’s only true friend is unveiled as an unconvicted paedophile, and director Joe Wright’s determination to portray him in a sympathetic light is a patronising misjudgement of an audience sophisticated enough to appreciate moral ambiguity when it sees it. The aforementioned classmates are displayed uniformly as a herd (with the slight exception of Anne-Marie who has been “touched” by David) and as such there is little realism in anything they do. Clearly, Nature Boy is disenfranchised from such people and its portrayal of an avowedly group mentality makes it clear that its standpoint is outside such a society. Yet ultimately, it proves little and stretches the argument too far by portraying these brutes as happily leaving one of their own to die.

But the good outweighs the bad and there is much to enjoy here. Beth Orton’s title track and the incidental music as a whole (so pivotal in recent contemporary drama) ably imbue the production with some Nick Drakesque pastoralism. The integrity of the central performances and the essential moral rightness about David and his embarkation on his rites of passage elude easy interpretation yet allow Wright to conclude episode one with a relatively contrived piece of framing. We see David departing, quietly watched by a recently liberated owl. Perhaps in the end we shall learn that this was his father all along.


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