David Witton (Lee Ingleby) is a troubled seventeen year old. Along with several other youngsters he lives with foster parents (he barely remembers his father who left home when he was a young child, his mother refuses to speak to him) and he’s been placed in the remedial class at school.
He’s not a troublemaker though, which is made clear during a particularly rowdy lesson. The other pupils are enjoying themselves by baiting the teacher whilst David remains totally absorbed in a world of his own. To make this point plain, the background noise is gently faded down until there’s total quiet as David continues to look out of the window at a pair of nesting birds. When the teacher asks him what he’s looking at, he replies “great tits” which she naturally takes the wrong way (as do the rest of the class).
Even this early on, we can see that David is disconnected from virtually everyone around him. The only constants in his life are his love of nature plus the companionship of Fred (Mark Benton) who lives on the nature reserve. But whilst the beauty of the local landscape offers some respite from reality it can only be a temporary refuge.
The opening episode is bleak on so many levels. David meets Anne-Marie (Vicky Binns) who’s come to stay with his foster parents. She’s about his age, although she seems much older – telling him that her previous foster father regularly abused her. This isn’t a major plot point, simply some incidental colour as it’s taken as read that such things happen. A familiar television face, thanks to long stints on both Emmerdale and Coronation Street, Binns offers a haunting portrait of a doomed, disaffected youth.
The serial makes an interesting choice when it’s revealed that Fred was a paedophile The details aren’t revealed but David remains non judgmental (telling him that’s what he was, not who he is now) although that doesn’t prevent a group of youths (who were looking for David) from burning his hut down. It’s no surprise that Mark Benton is excellent as Fred. Not an easy role to play (nor is it a particularly large one) but it’s another performance that lingers in the memory.
It can’t be a coincidence that David reacts in the same way after he finds a stricken deer (which he’s forced to kill in front of his horrified classmates) and when he sees Anne-Marie’s lifeless body washed up on the shore. Both times he mourns for a life lost, and it seems that both were equally important to him.
There’s nothing left for him at home now, so he sets off to find his father, Steve (Paul McGann). His father is a constant presence in the narrative – regularly glimpsed briefly in flashback sequences as David slowly begins to remember more about him. But with only a single photograph it seems unlikely he’ll be able to track him down.
As episode two opens, David is far from home and living off the land. If this open-air existence could been seen as idyllic (the acoustic, guitar based incidental music reinforces this) there’s also the sense that – as with his trips to the nature reserve in the first episode – these moments of pleasure can only be fleeting ones. As his small boat sails into port he’s greeted by an ugly, industrial landscape and the incidental music changes accordingly.
David, nursing an injured fox, is found by a young boy Miles (Samuel Sackville) hiding in his parent’s shed. Miles is withdrawn and barely speaks, thanks to his domineering father Tom (Andrew Woodall) but David’s empathy not only exists with animals – he’s able, with the aid of the fox, to bring the previously taciturn Miles out of his shell. He can obviously see something of himself in Miles (who has to endure violent rows between his parents). The pair share several lovely scenes and their final one (soundtracked by Paul Weller’s Brand New Start) stands out.
David’s winsome, vulnerable persona claims another convert as he’s befriended by Jenny (Joanne Froggatt). Downtown Abbey is one of her most recent high-profile roles, but here she was right at the start of her career. Immediately prior to this she’d played the gormless work experience girl Sigourney in the series two opener of dinnerladies and a few years later would have an impressive dual role in the first episode of The Last Detective.
Tom (a local MP) is presented as such an obnoxious individual that it’s just about credible that his wife Martha (Lesley Sharp) would be so attracted to David that she’d want to sleep with him. Just about. Although since Martha and Tom have no sex-life to speak of, it’s maybe not surprising that she grabs the nearest available man she can find (even if it’s a seventeen year old living in her shed). Clearly you’ve got to watch the quiet ones …..
It’s a slight plot contrivance that Jenny is campaigning against the local industrial company Blexco whilst Martha is handling PR for them. It’s Martha’s job to spin the message that they’re not damaging the environment – instead they’ve helping the community by bringing employment into the area as well as sponsoring local projects. No surprise that Jenny isn’t convinced (cement dust killed her brother) although she’s something of a lone voice to begin with.
Blexco are exposed, but things don’t end well for David and he’s forced to move on. The third installment begins with Jenny’s involvement with a group of protesters who are attempting to stop the felling of a forest. As with the previous episode, we see the sharp contrast between nature and business (here it’s the Keyways construction site). There’s an undeniable sense of polemic to begin with (business = bad) but when David arrives he’s able to provide another point of view.
We move into borderline telefantasy territory as Jenny stands in the middle of the forest and says “come on.” Miles away, David is visited by another vision of his father, who’s brought somebody with him – Jenny. She repeats the same words that she spoke in the forest, seemingly guiding David towards her.
The protesters are a colourful group, no doubt inspired by the exploits of Swampy a few years earlier. As they all sit around, somewhat depressed by the encroaching security, Jenny is encouraged to sing to them. Joanne Froggatt’s acapella song is yet another stand out moment, made all the more interesting as it’s partly overlaid with scenes of David’s travels. As he stops for a moment, it seems as if he’s following her singing – a striking use of non-diegetic sound.
When David turns up he rescues Jenny from drowning – except she wasn’t drowning at all (David was having a flashback to Anne-Marie’s death). As with his visions of his father, it’s another indication that his grasp on reality is somewhat skewed.
Although Jenny tells David that she can’t leave with him – as she has to stay and protect the trees, flowers and animals – he’s far from impressed with the way they’ve created a series of tunnels in order to try and halt the developers. “You’re digging under trees and pouring concrete and bits of metal down there! There’s no animals here. There’s no foxes or badgers, ‘cos you’ve driven them all away.” It’s a fascinating moment.
Richard Ridings as Ted, the sheriff charged with clearing out the protesters, is another excellent performer. Ted isn’t a cackling, evil monster – he loves the forest as much as anybody, but tells David that the runway development will go ahead because “people like to go on holiday. They want to fly their planes here, there and everywhere. They don’t want to sit by the lake.” He’s more of a rounded character than many of the protesters, who tend to be defined by their sloganeering and little else.
David, Jenny, Wack (Ged Hunter) and Donny (Stephen Taylor) take refuge in the tunnels once the contractors arrive in force. Donny, previously the figurehead of the protesters (and David’s rival for Jenny’s affections) is a different character once the claustrophobia of the tunnels begins to take hold. He’s revealed as something of a dilettante whilst Jenny’s passion burns just as bright. This isn’t a good thing though, as she’s prepared to risk her life in what appears to be a meaningless gesture. David agrees to go further undergeound with her, but not because he believes in what she’s doing – he just wants to be with her.
The final scenes of the third episode, as David and Jenny are entombed deep underground, are striking. Both Ingleby and Frogatt are mesmerising as the characters enjoy moments of solitude and intimacy, which contrasts sharply with the frantic efforts above ground as the contractors attempt to rescue them. David’s naked, mud-covered body is pulled out, but Jenny is still down there and he frantically pleads with them to go back for her …..
I’m not going to discuss the final episode in any detail, so that first-time viewers can discover Jenny’s fate (and also whether David finds his father) for themselves. Although if you want to remain spoiler free I’d also recommend skipping the coming next montages on the first three episodes. Coming next trailers are something of a curse of modern television and it’s interesting to ponder whether the ones on Nature Boy (lest we forget, made some sixteen years ago) are simply a very clumsy, early example of this trend or whether the clips were chosen deliberately as part of the overall story-telling experience.
The trailers for the first two episodes not only preview events from the next installment, but also look ahead to later episodes – which means that we always remain several steps ahead of the characters (especially David). What leads me to suppose that there’s some thought been given to the choice of these clips is that some of them (especially the ones with Paul McGann) are rather misdirecting, especially the ones seen directly episode one.
If a slight weakness of Nature Boy is its episodic nature, then then sharpness of the scripting and performances more than compensates. Lee Ingleby has a difficult role to play, as David is withdrawn and self-contained, but he manages to bring considerable light and shade to the troubled teenager. Joanne Frogatt is equally as strong and all four episodes also boast numerous compelling one-off appearances from a host of quality actors.
That it won the 2001 Royal Television Society award for Best Drama is entirely merited and as it seems to have made a strong impression on many who watched it on its original broadcast, it’s very pleasing that it’s now available on DVD. Simply’s release contains the four episodes (each approx 58 minutes) across two discs. There are no issues with either the picture or sound.
Nature Boy is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016. RRP £24.99.