Natural disaster

Television - Andrew Billen on the strange environment of <em>Nature Boy</em>

I was not alone in liking Gormenghast, just one of a persecuted minority. I still say the BBC was right to try something different. Taken alone, however, being different is not enough - as Nature Boy, which is now occupying Peake time (Mondays, 9pm, BBC2), proves. Bryan Elsley's serial knows it is unlike other TV, but does not realise this is because it is also utterly unlike real life. Crazier than Gormenghast, whose universe was at least consistently perverse, Nature Boy mixes social realism with a fantastical take on the natural world and then adds to the confusion by crossing genres, mood and pace from week to week. The first episode was so slow, you could hear grass grow under the dialogue. Last week's rattled along like an Andrea Newman vehicle.

The Nature Boy is, to say the least, a protean figure. In week one, 16-year-old David was loser incarnate, a straggler from Learning Support III. His mother a junkie and his father not seen since he was four, he shares a foster home in Barrow with a 14-year-old sexually abused girl called Anne Marie. At school, his contemporaries are thugs who by day beat up a Chinese lad for knowing what a verb is, and by night joyride on whizz. David is positioned on the very brink of the plughole of social exclusion and, were he as other youth, would soon be rattling down it.

David, however, has a friend in nature and also in Fred, the warden of the local reserve and substitute father. David's real dad, says this Wordsworthian beachcomber forgivingly, "came and went with the seasons, like a plover". But Fred has his own shortcomings, a weakness for, as David's mum puts it, "fucking little boys". Fortunately, we are given to understand that he has been cured by Mother Nature's TLC (an unusually sympathetic view of pederasty probably intended to be "different" and "controversial" rather than plain daft).

David's social deprivations have similarly responded to the therapy of the great outdoors. After the inevitable misunderstanding, his knowledge of great tits even wins over his remedial teacher. Next to David, St Francis and John Aspinall are amateurs: Nature Boy need only look down to discover Bambi and Thumper frolicking at his feet. In contrast, his wicked foster dad cages parrots and owls, and from time to time kicks the shit out of them. Nature, a firm but fair probation officer, is unforgiving towards such offenders. The parrot bites the wicked foster father back and a gull attacks the school bully. Anne Marie, who has failed to elude the unnatural world of sex'n'drugs, ends up as naked and drowned as Ophelia. Thus endeth Episode One, an hallucinogenic remake of Ken Loach's Kes.

David now runs off into an alternative universe, also known as Episode Two. This, hey presto, turns out to be a political thriller. His pet fox and he are lodging in a garden shed owned by a nasty Labour MP, his sexually frustrated wife, Martha, PR to a wicked cement company, and their young son, Miles, who discriminatingly no longer speaks to them. In 60 minutes, David (with a little help from Basil Brush) restores the boy's speech, sexually "awakes" his mother and exposes the safety record of the wicked cement company whose killer dust has poisoned the brother of a lark-voiced chorister and environmentalist called Jenny, his other love interest. The only person unhealed is the MP, although one feels that, given enough quality time with David, even he would have seen the light and voted for Ken Livingstone in the Labour Party's ballot . . . Am I imagining it, or did I hear somewhere in the beautiful-nerd mood music the line, "This is the sound of someone losing the plot"?

But in your guts you knew this show was nuts the moment David emerged full frontally starkers from the sea. Nature Boy's camera is always forgetting to avert its gaze at such moments, as if its director, Joe Wright, does not know the difference between nature, naturalism and naturism. But why blame Wright when you know he can produce Elsley's script as an alibi, a document clotted with cliche and naivety? "Do you know how beautiful you are?" Martha asks David as she removes her blouse. "I'm going to be wild when I grow up," Miles tells him later. There are lots of lines like these, but two hours in and there's still not one joke.

This is deeply flawed writing, even if the acting is so intense that you might be conned into thinking otherwise. Lee Ingleby, it must be said, is in danger not only of making acne a fashion choice, but of turning David into a human being rather than the walking allegorical curative that Elsley has doomed him to be: an adolescent superhero and the last word in natural remedies. Tune in on Monday when the boy wonder joins a camp of Brummy eco-warriors and finds himself in, or so we are promised, a disaster movie. Nature Boy intends to be mythic. In this case, believe me, a myth is as good as a mile.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul