This Monday brought a breath of fresh air to my weary television. Quite understated in its execution for a blatant ‘awareness-raising’ vehicle from the BBC’s White Season on white working class Britain, White Girl, written by Abi Morgan, dealt gracefully with some hairy issues surrounding a young girl’s struggle to cope with a chaotic and frightening family life through Islam. Astonishingly, there were no cringe-worthy, obvious lines that made you want to splatter the screen in ethical sick from the moral lessons being forced down your throat. The lack of clear-cut battles of good vs. evil a la Disney movies saw this programme beautifully meander through the many shades of grey and prove enthralling from beginning to end.
Leah is a young girl who is uprooted from her home in Leeds to escape to Bradford with her mother Debbie, brother and sister where they find themselves among a wholly Asian community. They are fleeing a life of volatility with the violent father of the younger siblings, Stevie, who uses Leah to courier the drugs he supplies to his clients. They find however that this instability does not entirely rest with him as Debbie’s imperfections as a mother come to the surface again and again. Penniless and unhappy, she gets a job cleaning but can barely afford to support her family and certainly cannot cope without a bottle of vodka to get her through. From the start it is the relationship between Leah and her mother that is focussed upon, particularly highlighted by the lack of caring father figure in Leah’s life and proves to be critical to where the story ends. The moment where Leah hands her mum a list she has written of all of her failings is handled wonderfully and when Leah makes eye contact with her at the moment Debbie lets Stevie back into her bed is one of outstanding poignancy.
Having moved out of her home to live with the family next door, Leah embraces the Muslim way of life as something that takes her away from all of the anxiety of her family. However, what is particularly compelling about this plot is the fact that it is not so simple and that the story does not overstate the salutary power of the Muslim faith in an unhelpfully clichéd attempt to eulogise the religion. A number of factors lead Leah to this, which truly gives the story greater depth and the tone less of a pedagogical slant. Leah clearly has a respect for her teacher that may perhaps be read as daughterly admiration or equally a high school crush and as a result wants to know more about him and his faith. She is lonely, inquisitive and has a desperate desire to have control over something in her life. In the end it is strength of character that her mother is yet to find.
White Girl does not try to be all-encompassing and succeeds because it is happy to offer a slice into a situation and not fully resolve it. For more information on BBC2’s White Season, go to www.bbc.co.uk/white/.
By Susan Allen