The BBC is currently showing a dramatisation of The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowlings' first novel after the Harry Potter series. I have not read it. My mother-in-law threw her copy in the bin after the first chapters; she said that the language was so foul that she could not possibly pass the book on to anybody else. Be that as it may, Allisson Pearson in the Telegraph imagines an alternative drama with the same cast - The Causal Vacancy
Set in a town hall in the Northern borough of Shagford, The Causal Vacancy is an unflinching look at the corruption of a Labour council that has been in power so long, no one can remember any other kind of regime. The mayor, Des Barraclough (played with uproarious pomposity by Michael Gambon), is a petty provincial dictator concerned solely with shoreing up his own perks and privilege. When Diane Cross, the embittered head of social services (Keeley Hawes), tells Barraclough that young girls in Shagford, many of them in the care of the council, are being pimped and raped by a brutal cartel of South Asian taxi drivers, he is determined to shut down the story. There is an election coming up, and the Mayor doesn’t want to lose the votes of Pakistani-heritage residents who guarantee that Shagford remains an impregnable Labour stronghold.
Barraclough charges the deputy leader of the council, Akram Bayadi, with investigating the allegations in the sure knowledge he will do no such thing. We cut to a scene at a local café where Akram takes tea with his cousin, Sanjeev, who runs Shagford’s biggest minicab company. Sitting besides Sanjeev is Crystal, a 14-year-old girl as pale as the glass of milk she silently sips. As the two men discuss how they are going to close down the disgusting allegations that South Asian men are abusing under-age girls, the camera moves slowly up Crystal’s arm, pausing to inspect a vivid bruise and a rosette of scorched flesh, the imprimatur of a stubbed-out cigarette.
Sanjeev decides to enlist the help of Aidan Prior, Shagford’s Deputy Chief Constable, who has turned a blind eye to the employment of illegal immigrants at Sanjeev’s chain of curry houses in return for frequent golfing holidays at his villa in the Algarve. “No problems, Sanjeev,” says Aidan cheerily, “I won’t let them little slags give you any bother.”
A moment later, we see a police raid on a run-down house at night. At least a dozen taxi drivers are lounging on sofas and watching cricket on a huge TV. In a squalid bedroom, the coppers find 13-year-old Joelli, who is wearing only a Hello Kitty crop-top and a thong and shaking violently. Her speech is slurred. When a sergeant asks gently “Aright, love?”, the girl starts to cry and clutches her rescuer’s arm. Briskly, a second constable puts handcuffs on Joelli and drags the crumpled child downstairs, past the gang who are cheering on a first-class innings by Pakistan’s captain.
Meanwhile, at Shagford Community College, the headteacher, Barbara West (Julie Walters, on blazing form) learns from Hannah Prior (Aidan’s daughter) that her friend, the vivacious Bibiana Ahmed, has mysteriously disappeared after a fight with her family over auditioning for The X Factor. Mrs West seeks out Shagford’s veteran Labour MP, Dennis Dinsley, and says she is afraid that Bibi is being held against her will and may be sent back to Pakistan for a forced marriage.
“She wouldn’t be the first and she won’t be the last,” says the complacent Dinsley, pushing his wire-rimmed specs up his beaky nose. “Nothing we can do about it, Barbara, love. It’s their culture and that’s the end of it.”
“But it’s not our culture,” protests West. “These are British-born girls, Dennis. They deserve our help and protection.”
“Are you suggesting girls like Bibi need protecting from their own parents?” replies Dinsley coolly. “Careful, Barbara, there are laws against stirring up racial hatred, you know. Fancy a humbug?”
Cut to the police station where 13-year-old Joelli Jones is let off after a caution for being drunk and disorderly. As the waif-like figure leaves the building, a minicab pulls up to the kerb. One of the waiters from Sanjeev’s restaurant gestures at her to get inside. Over at the town hall, in the mayor’s office, Des Barraclough and Julie Cross are lying on a table, engaged in energetic sexual congress. Breathing heavily, Mayor Barraclough demands that his mistress give him the address of the refuge where some of the abused girls are in hiding so he can pass it on to Akram Bayadi. “The good name of Shagford depends on it, Diane!” he groans. Through the vast, municipal, arched window behind them, we glimpse the flag of Gaza flying from the roof of the town hall. The end titles start to roll...
Did the BBC really make such a compelling drama, a searing satire on the corruption and complicity of a politically correct and over-powerful Labour authority in the abuse of young girls? Well, of course they didn’t. That would have meant not just tackling a topical subject of huge national importance, it would have required the BBC to face up to the fact that the people who do hideous things for their own private gain are not just nasty Tories in pinstripe suits.
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