Neil Morrissey: Care Home Kid (BBC2)

A surprisingly sensitive celebrity documentary.

I'm allergic to celebrity documentaries; the narcissism and self-pity is enough to make the skin itch. But Neil Morrissey's two-part investigation into his childhood in care (28 March/31 March, 9pm) was, I must say, extremely moving. There were a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that his story needs no embellishment to make the lip tremble. At the age of ten, the actor was removed from his parents and sent to a children's home - a consequence, apparently, of his fondness for a little light petty thieving. His older brother, Steve, similarly removed by the same Stafford court on the same day, was sent to a different home and the two brothers did not clap eyes on one another for ten years, by which time their previously close relationship was more or less screwed.

The second is his attitude to it. In a world in which spilling one's guts is the done thing, Morrissey is quietly stoical, a man more given to counting his blessings than to snotty histrionics. When he did weep, he was angry with himself, a flash of embarrassment starkly at odds with the ersatz emotions on display elsewhere.

Morrissey is friendly, warm and entirely without self-pity, but there is also something blank about his big, brown eyes. It was this blankness, the result of calcified hurt, that he attempted to address in his film. He started by trying to find out why, exactly, he and his brother had been taken into care in the first place: surely the nicking of a pencil and some liquorice allsorts didn't merit such desperate measures? He tracked down his former social worker, the mysterious and irritating Mr Pease. Their encounter was awkward. It was clear that the Morrissey parents, Irish immigrants who worked shifts as psychiatric nurses, had been found to be chaotic, dirty and regularly absent, even at night-time.

Nervous Mr Pease, however, had no wish to spell out the precise details, fearing perhaps that this might be a truth too far even for the unflinching Morrissey. Nor, disappointingly, did he address the question of why the siblings were separated (can such bureaucratic cruelty ever really be excused?) and Morrissey, dazed by a sortie into a past he would rather keep in an old shoebox beneath his bed, unaccountably failed to put the thumbscrews on him.

I liked the way Morrissey reserved his anger for what had happened to other people: for the sadists who had abused the men in the institution where Steve had lived; for the authorities who had in effect abandoned one of his teenage interviewees as soon as she had reached the age of 16 (this had happened to Morrissey, too, only he was rescued by the family of a schoolfriend). He regarded his own case with mild bewilderment and a reluctance to blame.

What struck me more forcefully, however, was the way that Morrissey had moved through life without a backward glance. Ruthless is the word, though this sounds unkind and I do not mean it to be. The drama teacher who encouraged him at school, the family who fostered him while he was in the sixth form, the sisters who lived with him in care: all of these people he was now contacting for the first time in decades.

Filmed among the middle-class trappings of his adult life - the Victorian house with its coffee tables and its nicknacks; the place in rural France where he comes to "relax" and fork hay amateurishly - he did not look like an imposter, so much as an actor on set. Morrissey believes that his professional life saved him. The applause gave him a sense of approval he had always craved, and the work, when it finally rolled in, provided a sense of purpose, and (briefly) money in the bank. But I think his skills have served him well in another way, too: act easy in your skin for long enough, and you will be easy in your skin. Chameleons survive. They make the world their own, and relish their ability to do so.

I admired Morrissey's film, but I don't blame him for the compartmentalism and wilful ignorance that preceded it. Repression, gilded with a little charm, works very well for some people, no matter what the shrinks like to tell you. l

Read more of Rachel Cooke's writing for the New Statesman

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?