Did we like it?
This sombre, draining story of one man’s struggle to control his damaging compulsions and how he ultimately fails was superbly acted and humanised one of the more demonised elements of society without ever sugar-coating the issue.
What was good about it?
• Matthew Macfadyen as the paedophile Charlie Webb who is fresh out of prison having served a sentence for the abuse of three girls aged seven to 12. Macfadyen’s performance as Charlie scraped slowly across each moment of the story from his bewilderment into the outside world upon his release to his final tragic decision to hang himself.
• As Charlie settled into a hostel for paedophiles being rehabilitated into the outside world, he had counselling sessions with Emma (the understated Holly Aird), and pleaded that if she “just took sex offender out [of her notes], you may see through to the human being. You may even like me.”
• These sentiments provided Charlie with a blueprint for the initial weeks following his release, and alerted viewers that he was worthy of our sympathy as he was trying to resist abusing children again with the help of a rubber band that he would snap to break any “deviant” thought processes. But the sessions also enlightened that he believed he was suffering from an illness, brought on by his own abuse suffered at the hands of his father, and sought to partially absolve himself of the guilt for his crimes, only for Emma to remind him: “You chose to do what you did, and you can choose not to.”
• The first sign of his habitual predilection for children came through Macfadyen conveying Charlie’s childish yearning for approval and reassurance such as when he expected Emma to praise him for walking to the hostel in order to avoid coming into contact with children on the bus, or similarly telling his probation officer for the same reason that he would prefer to walk to the police station to register as a sex offender or catch a bus in mid-morning when kids would be in school.
• Charlie’s humiliation in the police station when his efforts to come to the aid of a distressed young mother who had just been assaulted are stopped dead in their tracks by the duty officer shouting: “Are you here to sign up to the Sex Offenders’ Register?” The previously grateful mother visibly recoils, while Charlie is aflame with abasement.
• How even with Emma, who Charlie has grown to trust a little, his status as sex offender still defines his whole character after he expresses his sexual frustration and inability to find a partner his own age. She hides behind professional ethics, but Charlie senses this is just an excuse and that she will always see him as a paedophile.
• But while in the hostel, the best of Charlie was brought out his predatory nature, which cannot be blamed solely on what he called his “illness”, soon emerged. In the job centre a pretty receptionist ignored his clumsy efforts to chat her up, and her rejection of him by ordering him to “sit down”, brought out his nasty riposte of “I am not a dog.”
• And this clumsiness was starkly contrasted later on when Charlie befriends Michaela at the fun fair. Instead of appearing gauche and uncomfortable, he is charming, friendly and funny and soon is able to whisk that 12-year-old, who he only met that night, away to a café for chips and pineapple milkshake. “How did you know I liked pineapple?” she laughed. “People with no ear lobes like pineapple. It’s a well-known fact,” he replied. And this brilliant juvenile dialogue showed why Charlie was drawn to children and how he could have once abused them.
• The final half-hour during which Charlie stumbles to the fun fair after being chased there by a vengeful hate mob, was utterly excruciating viewing. On the one hand, you knew that Charlie had slipped back into his bad old habits after he had spied on the asylum seekers’ children in a neighbouring Home Office flat, but you also had enough affection for him as a person that he wouldn’t actually go through with any sexual assaults. Fortunately, he was able to repress his urges to assault Michaela (ironically because she was the only person since his release to treat him as a human being rather than a sex offender).
• When Charlie’s hostel is targeted by angry parents, the quandary of how to treat paedophiles in society is presented simply as a clash of human sensibilities; of instinct – the parents desire to protect their children – against rationality – by concentrating the paedophiles in one place they can better be treated and supervised.
What was bad about it?
• The sporadic appearance of the urban hate mobs, that chased Charlie through the streets with the scent of blood in their nostrils, seemed to be to push the story along rather than as any part of the story. Apparently, they first discovered his location through “the tabloids”, but surely he would have been warned? And how did they track him down a second time to a Home Office block of flats?
• And the second chase pushed Charlie into the unsafe environment of the fun fair, which appeared to be a quick, artificial way for him to demonstrate his ‘prowess’ as a paedophile.
• Although self-contained within the narrative and an understandable course of action, Charlie’s suicide after he realised he could never be safe around children did have unnerving echoes of being a clarion call to real paedophiles to ‘do the honourable thing’ and kill themselves. Secret Life as a drama was far too intelligent and erudite to suggest such a thing, but there was a sense that some people would see this as the preferred path for paedophiles to take.
• Matthew Macfadyen’s blinking. We first noticed it in Spooks, and it’s something he does when he’s not speaking. Thankfully, he delivers such absorbing performances you stop perceiving it after a while.