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8 June 2022

My Name is Leon: a horribly preachy drama

This BBC film about a child dealing with racism in 1980s Birmingham promises real-world lessons but delivers saccharine platitudes.

By Rachel Cooke

It strikes me as somewhat wasteful of a producer to cast Christopher Eccleston and Lenny Henry in roles that require them to utter approximately three and half lines each. But I think I know what might have induced both men to appear – even if only for a few studied nanoseconds – in the BBC’s adaptation of Kit de Waal’s 2016 novel My Name is Leon. Horribly preachy and overly schematic, this film feels more like one made for children than for adults – and sure enough, every single actor in it turns in the kind of ostentatiously heart-warming performance that suggests they’re present as much as a matter of duty as because they relish their role; that they have, in fact, signed up to teach an important lesson rather than to perform a subtle, complex drama.

Set in 1980s Birmingham – we get the cars, and the duvet covers – My Name is Leon stars a wonderful newcomer, Cole Martin, as the little boy of its title: clever, determined, kind Leon. When the drama opens, Leon’s mother, Carol (Poppy Lee Friar), has just given birth to his baby brother, Jake, and all is milkily cosy. She is a single mum, and not especially flush, but she’s also loving and reasonably capable. Only then… disaster. Jake’s father, who is not Leon’s dad, refuses to meet his new son – he has a family elsewhere – and Carol sinks into a depression, unable even to get out of bed. For a while, Leon keeps the show on the road. Devotedly, he changes Jake’s nappies and feeds him formula. But this cannot go on forever. Soon, there’s no food in the house. Eventually a neighbour calls the authorities, and both children are taken into care.

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It’s a piece of good luck that the foster mother who gets the call is Maureen (Monica Dolan, as brilliant as ever), so experienced and warm; a woman who always has a Curly Wurly stowed away in her handbag for those desperate moments when only a particularly chewy brand of confectionary will do the job. But this is the Eighties, remember. Once it’s clear that Carol is not getting any better, the boys, the social workers decide, will be separated: adoptive families are easily found for white babies, less so for black ten-year-olds. This is “for the best”.

Jake is taken away, and Leon is devastated – though the fact that this separation is born, essentially, of racism, he will only understand later, when he conveniently begins hanging out on some nearby allotments with a man called Tufty (Malachi Kirby). Tufty’s friends are involved in local anti-racist struggles and his own children are far away in Jamaica (it’s at these allotments, too, that Leon meets the characters played by Eccleston and Henry).

It’s not the fault of My Name is Leon that I watched it soon after seeing the Irish film The Quiet Girl at the cinema, the latter being a stone-cold masterpiece about a neglected child. Even so, I couldn’t help but make comparisons. For all that I am, essentially, an optimistic person – mostly, I favour art that turns its gaze to windows rather than cellars – My Name is Leon infuriated me by being a piece that cannot bear, somehow, to deal with the consequences of the issues it is determined to raise. There are lectures, there are sermons, there is even a death in police custody, and yet, up at the allotments, the sun is always shining (the ramshackle plots appear before us as if they’re in an old Timotei ad, permanently haloed with gold), and seeds are always growing, putting down “strong roots” that will help them endure. Here is soil and solidarity; even Mr Devlin (Eccleston), with his strong Northern Irish accent, turns out not to be the bigot we took him for.

It all seems, if not utterly preposterous, then platitudinous and sentimental. The final scene, in which Tufty enjoys a jolly supper at Maureen’s, is so cheesy. Even Maureen’s grumpy, outrageous sister Sylvie (Olivia Williams) is suddenly as soft as Wall’s ice cream in his company – though at least she’s still wearing her hair in the same ridiculous style (Williams’s wig looks like a dead cat, if there were a species of cat whose coat is vaguely aubergine-coloured).

I know. I sound so grumpy and cynical. But there it is. If you’re planning to watch My Name is Leon any time soon, make sure you have a couple of 12-year-olds close beside you on the sofa. See it through their eyes, or not at all.

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My Name is Leon
BBC Two, 10 June, 9pm

[See also: Sky’s new adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos is more psy-fi than sci-fi]

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man