Growing Up Gifted review – some hope amid the classism and cruelty

In the first of a second series, we witnessed six above-averagely intelligent teenagers continuing to battle the effects of poverty and nonconformity

‘Be safe, and be successful.” This is what Rene, a full-time security guard and single mother of two (since her husband’s application to remain was refused a year ago and he was deported to Jamaica), wants for her musically gifted son Jamarley. The order is telling. Safety first, when there is nothing beneath to catch you if you fall.

Last night’s Growing Up Gifted (BBC Two) was the first episode in the second series following six above-averagely intelligent children, three girls and three boys, from low-income backgrounds and – well, seeing if they’re doomed, basically. It is hedged about with the usual phrases about social mobility and so on, but it is, in essence, a study of if, when and how the noose of class begins to tighten round dreams and potential and choke them to death.

At the start of the programme, the three boys (the girls are covered next week) are in year 10 and still breathing fairly easily. Liam, from Newcastle, is still planning on becoming a doctor rather than going into catering as he had originally planned, and falls in love with Jesus College, Cambridge, when the school sends their possible applicants to attend an outreach open day. “Everything around us is new and different and … I just love it,” he breathes, gazing at the warm red buildings dotting the expansive grounds of the university’s third wealthiest college. Its motto is Prosperum iter facias – may your journey be successful. Its intake is 60% state school. You can practically see Liam’s ambition swell. His mother buys him a special maths book to practice. If he writes the answers on paper instead of in the spaces provided, she says, it can be used for his little brother in a few years’ time too. But, over the next few months, he becomes withdrawn, stops working and avoids family visits to his beloved grandad. It emerges that he has realised he is gay and is frightened to tell his grandad. His fear and turmoil are palpable and terrible to see.

Jamarley, too, is going great guns at first – studying to take three GCSEs early, including music. His focus is pulled, however, when during a drive-by shooting in Jamaica, his dad is caught in the crossfire and hospitalised with two bullet wounds. In addition, his bedroom is uninhabitable and the electrics dangerous because of a water leak. He sometimes has to miss the extra lessons his music teacher is giving him because he has to pick his sister up when his mother works late. Can someone else not do it, his teacher pleads. “I’m always the last resort already,” he replies, because his fiercely devoted mother does everything she can to ring-fence his time and maximise his chances.

Jamarley, in Growing Up Gifted, who has his wonderful mother, his musical talent and his teacher.
Jamarley, in Growing Up Gifted, who has his wonderful mother, his musical talent and his teacher. Photograph: BBC/Blast! Films

Kian, whose disabled mother is cared for by his father, already faces the world with a hard, unflinching gaze. “At the end of the day there is no escaping some crap,” he says, unsmiling. “Just up to you whether that crap matters or not.” He left his local school after being bullied and attends a more affluent one an hour from his council estate home. He is gay – “100% bent”, he says flintily – and “annoys people”. He has the unsparing insight into himself and others of someone twice times his age. It’s currently working as sword and shield, but you wonder if he sometimes longs to put both down.

By the end of the year, the effects of poverty, nonconformity and caution imposed by circumstance have battered them all but left them individually unbowed. The viewer has more of a sense, perhaps, than they do of the odds stacked against them, and the deepening channels down which their finite energies and resources will increasingly be diverted.

They are so bright. Their potential is almost tangible – you want to reach through the screen, grab it in handfuls and thrust it into the faces of the powers that be. The landlord who hasn’t righted Jamarley’s house, the government who won’t bring back his dad. Those who still make being gay so pointlessly, cruelly hard. Those who won’t keep them safe or let them be successful.

But Jamarley has his wonderful mother and his talent and his teacher. Liam has his granddad, who takes his coming out in his stride: “Doesn’t mean he’s a different person. Anyway, the gay bars in the town are the best bars to go to.” And Kian has his best friend, Tyler, and his unassailable, wholly magnificent Kian-ness.

Prosperum iter facias, all of you.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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