❉ A forgotten eco-drama from the writer of Break In The Sun and Running Scared.
A prolific, but perhaps not the most familiar, name in children’s television is that of Bernard Ashley. Having written dozens of works of fiction in a career spanning over forty years, the south London schoolteacher became something of a go-to writer for children’s television productions in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Ashley had previously penned Break in the Sun (1981) and having had a very popular hit with Running Scared in 1986, Ashley’s next work for BBC1 was the environment-themed drama The Country Boy. Barely remembered now, this six-parter came into being at the back end of the 1980s – a time when issues concerning the health of the planet were very much in vogue. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth made the news regularly with their campaigning and, in addition to the usual problems associated with growing up, issues surrounding the environment were often in the minds of young people. Here, we have a tale that deals with the dumping of toxic waste and how the young protagonist, Ben Westcott, finds himself tangled up in the machinations of the villains.
Living a seemingly idyllic life on the Kent marshes, Ben cares little for school and exists largely for his hobby of participating in sheepdog trials with his Border Collie, Duke. Ben is very firmly an outdoor type and is a regular visitor to the home of his Nan (Mary Wimbush), a wise old woman who is known for her use of traditional, natural cures and remedies. Life is good for Ben until one day, after swimming in a pond with the dog he becomes dangerously ill having apparently ingested an unknown substance. Duke subsequently goes missing, leaving Ben in a state of deep depression.
Meanwhile, Charmaine, a worker in a chemical factory notices that canisters of a highly toxic (and government banned) chemical – D22 – have been disappearing and deduces that somebody is stealing them to sell abroad. At the same time as these events are playing out, a whistleblower from a non-specific Middle Eastern embassy in London contacts a tabloid newspaper concerned about chemical attacks by a neighbouring nation on his homeland, bringing rookie investigative reporter Adam into the story (you’d never get western-produced weapons of mass destruction being shipped to cause havoc in Middle East in 2019…) The dots are not very difficult for the viewer to join up.
Ben is rushed to King Henry’s, a London hospital, where he resists having to stay. He doesn’t feel at all at home in the city and longs to return home. One of his fellow patients, Lee, is determined not to make Ben feel welcome and disparages everything to do with the country. Lee is presenter as a totally uncouth type – he is rude, noisy and permanently dressed in a full Terry Hurlock-era Millwall football kit, and reading The Sun rather than The Beano. Alan Dean who plays Lee inbues the part with a terrific amount of menace.
With the press having got wind of the scandal, things behind to move on apace. Mark Burdis’s reporter Adam Roberts is in a relationship with nurse Barbara who is responsible for looking after Ben, and he uses information gleaned from her in his investigation. In what would barely raise an eyebrow today, they are in an (uncommented upon) mixed-race relationship – not such a common sight for 1989. Unfortunately for the pair, their relationship falters when Barbara discovers her boyfriend’s betrayal for the sake of a story and she is subsequently suspended from her job. The doctors are mystified by Ben’s condition, whilst at the same time the chemical company enact a cover-up. The criminals involved here aren’t the brightest bunch, with Adam finding a label from one of the cans in the water where the can had been dumped. On a day out from the hospital Ben absconds and returns to Kent and his Nan, determined not to die on a ward.
The mystery is ultimately solved by Charmaine, who at the beginning is somebody we are led to think is just an unassuming receptionist, along with the scientist who originally formulated D22, Lesley, and Adam. They combine their efforts to stop the villains from getting a load of chemicals away on a boat. As there must be with these things, there’s ultimately a happy (if exceptionally swift) resolution. Ben’s health improves, the baddies are caught and life returns to normal for Ben and his family.
The message that the serial imparts is important but not really very subtle, with the idea that country = good and city = bad being the basic premise. The country is clean and pure, while the city is, as Ben puts it, “like a drain”. Big business is rotten, whereas the quiet life is desirable. Traditional remedies are natural and effective, modern chemicals are the cause of all of the trouble. Coming from a born and bred Londoner in Ashley, this all is perhaps a rather surprising attitude to hold, but the series achieves the aim of getting youngsters to think about issues such as this.
Stalwart children’s drama director Colin Cant takes the helm for this production, and delivers his usually high standard of work (some very obvious day-for-night work, aside). There’s some good location work out on the marshes in Kent, and this is contrasted with the grittiness of the city. Once again Cant teams up with the composer David Ferguson, whose work on the previous year’s Moondial was incredibly effective. Moody, atmospheric music is present on nearly every minute of the production and adds a great deal to it. Ferguson was a freelance composer having failed to get a job with the Radiophonic Workshop, but his music of this period fits perfectly in that genre. He would go on to work on some of the biggest dramas of the 1990s, before his premature death in 2009, and it would have been fascinating to have heard what he could have done on something like Doctor Who.
Ben is played by Jeremy Sweetland, a young man who takes the part very convincingly and sadly didn’t do any further acting on television. After studying law he later went on, as Jez Sweetland, to work as project director of the Bristol Housing Festival. The supporting cast don’t let the side down either – BBC directors often seemed to have a canny knack of employing very talented young actors; here, Alan Dean as Lee takes his role very well, imparting the required menace and disdain of his role really effectively. Without wanting to be unkind, he physically looks the part.
There’s a nice touch when one of the hospital patients, Kelly, is shown reading a Grange Hill novel, firmly placing, the drama in the ‘real’ world. Alice Dawney who plays Kelly would shortly go in to star in that series for a number of years, whilst Mark Burdis and Patsy Palmer – the latter appearing here for a couple of episodes pre-EastEnders – had both previously been in the show too.
The BBC was on the cusp of massive changes at around this period, and this type of thoughtful, intelligent drama for younger viewers seemed to become less common. Ashley would only go on to pen only two more children’s serials in the 1990’s: through his television writing career he had continued in the teaching profession, only retiring in 1995. He continued to submit ideas for new serials, but due to the changing nature of children’s programming, no further commissions were forthcoming. This is not to say that he didn’t remain prolific – in the intervening years he has written dozens of books for both the young adult market as well as valuable ones for school reading schemes for younger pupils. You would, however, have thought that there would have been a role for such a talent in children’s television drama and that somebody would have wanted to use his experience and storytelling expertise.
Whilst not the most famous of his works for the BBC, this engaging adventure deserves a revisit and doesn’t fail to maintain the interest of the viewer. There’s very little here that doesn’t remain relevant today, and the serial stands up successfully, well-paced with no flab in the tale. A repeat run followed in the summer of 1991. Dramas like these were generally shown in an early evening slot, just after Newsround, and not hidden away on a ghettoised child-focussed channel. Press button 1 on your television set back in 1989, and there was a good chance that whilst having your tea you would stumble across a piece of thoughtful, entertaining programming that could be enjoyed by the whole family.
❉ ‘The Country Boy’ was broadcast on BBC One from 15 February to 22 March 1989. It is currently unavailable on DVD. ‘The Country Boy; The Full Script Of The Six-Part Television Series’ by Bernard Ashley was published by Walker Books on 1 October 1990.