A story about adolescent sexual identity and growing up in the absence of adequate parental care.
Gail, a fourteen-year-old from a middle class family in Leeds, is grieving over the death of her father. At school, she is tormented by a gang of other girls lead by Glenn, who comes from a dysfunctional family on a council estate. The drama featured in a series of productions staged by the BBC under the banner ‘Wicked Women’. Parminder plays Ayshe, a member of the King Girl's gang, who physically and verbally abuses Gail.
Telling tales on the bullies
GAIL, 14, rejoins her class after the death of her father.The young teacher, his idealism battered by the mysterious ways of teenage girls, asks for kindness, 'I'd like to see this class as a small community,' he says.
Glenn, and her gang, the King Girls, respond by beating Gail up, demanding her money and subjecting her to constant humiliation. 'Am I missing something here?' asks the teacher, as Gail sits isolated, despairing and afraid. It's a question which has a resonance in every classroom in the land - and in far too many memories of childhood too.
King Girl is an extraordinary triple achievement. It is the first televised screen play by Philomena McDonagh, herself a former teacher. She is as powerful in her use of imagery - the true language of the telly - as she is in the choice of words she gives to her protagonists.
In a strong cast, 16-year-old Louise Atkins who plays Glenn, her first professional role, is a future star. Third, King Girl, handles the issues of female violence convincingly because it gives the villain - Glenn - not only a lethal viciousness, but also a heart and soul.
A view has taken root that child bullies, thugs, and murderers, shoot from the womb with their 'evilness' fully formed. So, it matters that we have a drama like King Girl, which reminds us that what happens to a child in transit from cot to crime, at the hands of parents, matters hugely too.
McDonagh spent a lot of time 'hanging around the local estates and community centres to talk to kids - they are much more themselves away from school. Then I shoved all the research in a bottom drawer and started writing.'
Glenn has an absent father ('I'm no good at families...'), a dependent younger sister and an alcoholic mother, Gloria, who is on the game. 'You're stupid, fat, ugly cow,' Gloria screams at Glenn.
In contrast, Gail has a mother who cares and a father who was the backbone of her life - both prizes inducing jealousy in Glenn.
The recent death of Louise Allen, 13, kicked in a fight, and the trickle of suicides as a result of bullying, 10 a year, lends King Girl immediacy. But it began in 1993, prompted by the death of James Bulger.
'I wanted to look at the children who are deprived of love, who are told they are worthless. I also wanted to write about young women not in relation to men. The teenage girls who use aggression as a means of not dealing with their sexuality and their sensitivity,' Philomena McDonagh, explains.
According to the organization, Young Minds, 450,000 children (out of 13 million) are bullied every year. Accurate statistics are impossible, since so much is concealed. 'Two cultures exist in school,' McDonagh agrees. 'Things the teachers see and what really goes on. I don't think that will ever change.'
A recent Exeter University study questioned 13,000 pupils. It revealed that a third of 11 and 12-year-old girls and a quarter of boys were scared of going to school. Pauline Hasler of the Anti-Bullying Campaign argues that, in spite of guidelines, too many schools do nothing to change the culture which allows bullying to flourish.
Philomena McDonagh has 'huge admiration' for those in her former profession but,'Speaking personally, I found the line between keeping a class in order and, ironically, being a bully was too close. I stopped full-time teaching not because of the children but because of the cost to myself.
Tough girls like Glenn pay a cost too. Bullies don't feel good about themselves. They project their own vulnerability onto those whom they bully.Their own vulnerability is what they're really trying to bash.'
King Girl ends with the issue unresolved, but McDonagh argues that the two teenagers have, at least, 'moved on'.
'These young women have resources within themselves. Gail is a moral person and she hasn't allowed the bullying to destroy her. 'People often carry the psychological scars for years. They are ashamed that, as they see it, they allowed themselves to be treated badly'.
And Glenn? A happy-ever-after is hard to visualize but as a viewer, you are engaged enough to hope.
In the Eighties, McDonagh, a former actress, co-devised and starred in Crystal Clear, a play about a blind woman's love affair. Later, working with producer, Hilary Salmon, she was commissioned to write King Girl. Now, she is adapting Hardy's 'Far From the Madding Crowd' for Granada. She is reticent about her life, except to say that she is of indeterminate age, Irish, lives in London and has one child. 'I don't want King Girl infused with what is known about me,' she explains
'I want people to enjoy it - or not - on its own terms.'
'Enjoy' isn't the word I'd employ. King Girl has the power to move, to extend understanding and to encourage compassion - and that's not just for the good girl but for the 'bad' as well; a rare event in television.
by Yvonne Roberts. The Evening Standard, London, December 6th 1996
Return to Stage, Screen, TV and Radio index