Tim Winton’s School for Bad Children told with the kindness of a stuffed toy

Historically, children have sometimes found themselves sidelined in the modern world – as superheroes or wizards come to life, they often just need reminding that they live in a real world, with real problems and real problems that are not going to be solved by magic or by what children’s writer Tim Winton has called “a magical playground, with its own TV show”.

In Winton’s tale about a teenage girl and her stuffed toy monkey, we find lots of kids in trouble and small children left to fend for themselves. Once, in the largely self-contained world of School for Bad Children, children used to call on a slightly sickly golden monkey in order to improve their sad lives. But now we’re in a world where, as one character describes it, it “gets tough when everything’s going bad and it’s just like ‘c’mon c’mon’.” For 14-year-old Karla, hanging out with her school friends is both a chance to see some of the world and a chance to meet what she calls a “mysterious man with a moustache and a beard” who drops off supplies of strange cures which apparently have magical effects – despite lacking any scientific explanation. It’s an approach which has perhaps inspired Winton’s other series, Tracks, in which a former anthropologist travels around Australia trying to keep his adopted children happy.

And so, at the end of School for Bad Children’s second season (which airs on Channel 4), a portion of the town is turned into a slightly padded out children’s home where older children are sent to live in an expensive holiday resort. It’s the place where they learn to be good and (from Karla’s point of view) to depend on one another. So, as Karla watches the caged children go to sleep, with the monkey strapped to their back, the sadness she feels and the abuse she sees around her are almost never mentioned. Instead, the episode ends with a challenge to all the school children to put their lives into better order and to pay more attention to how they affect the lives of others: “The heat rising in the New Town Hall, it gave me tingles to watch the people breathe in, and the air-punching through the desert, it sure smelled like money for me,” is how one child sums up the painful process she has just completed.

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