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Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Have you news of my boy Jack?

It's rare today - in TV's lightweight world of tacky reality shows and insignificant tittle-tattle tosh - that something reaffirms television's power to educate, shock, inform, overwhelm, grip and entertain. But My Boy Jack does just that and considerably more. One of the most potent programmes you'll see on television this year, it's so powerful that at times it's almost unbearable to watch. Seriously good, haunting TV, it will stay lodged in your memory for a long time.

Written by actor David Haig - and based on his own stage version of a true-life story - My Boy Jack reveals how author and poet Rudyard Kipling used his influence to get his 17-year-old son John (called Jack) a commission with the Irish Guards, despite his son's poor eyesight, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War.

It was a terrible mistake, for a few months later Lieutenant John Kipling was killed in action, slowly and very cruelly cut down in a hail of machine-gun bullets at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, just one day after his 18th birthday.

But that wasn't the end of it. It took Kipling and his wife Caroline years to uncover the awful truth about their son's terrible death, and they never found his body. And, understandably, it altered Kipling's attitude to a war that he had previously whole-heartedly supported and publicly promoted.

It's not just a powerful story. The casting here is carefully chosen and top-notch. Haig himself plays Rudyard Kipling, giving a bravura performance as the writer, best known for The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, but here shown in his true colours as a hectoring, lecturing, often overbearing, bombastic paterfamilias with dangerously jingoistic leanings.

Daniel Radcliffe - playing his first major role on TV since the Harry Potter film series - is superb, keeping things finely understated as young Jack, the lad who wants to break away from his father and the suffocating, privileged world of his upbringing. Rebuffed twice by two military medical boards, through his father's influence he gains a commission, then trains hard with his men, and bravely goes over the top of the trenches to meet his death. Complementing the two leads are fine support roles from Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City's Samantha Jones) as Kipling's wife Caroline and Carey Mulligan as their daughter Elsie.

The script is tight and taut, running very smoothly, the locations are beautifully shot, the attention to detail - especially the battlefield scene - is superb, and the piece is brilliantly directed and edited, building unbearably in tension. And the closing scenes, over which Haig solemnly reads Kipling's poem My Boy Jack (written after his son's death), are a masterstroke.

Appropriately scheduled for peak-time viewing on Remembrance Sunday, this is TV at its finest. Harrowing, yet essential viewing.
Paul Strange

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