Adolescence was never a lark, but smartphones and WhatsApp groups seem to have turned it into a hellscape of toxic masculinity. That is one of the takeaways from Consent (Channel 4, Tuesday, 10pm), a grimly plausible account of a sexual assault and the ensuing cover-up at a posh English school.
Some of the dynamics – privileged oiks running amok in a hellish Hogwarts, essentially – feel specifically British. They don’t strike you as mapping easily on to an Irish setting. But there’s something dispiritingly universal about Consent’s portrayal of a rich kid raping a classmate from a disadvantaged background, then relying on family contacts to make the problem go away.
But does it go away? In a twist, it’s revealed that a friend of Archie (Tom Victor) has kept the video of his sexual assault on Natalie (Lashay Anderson), a scholarship student. He forwards it to her, and she calls the police.
You’ll feel your rage building as Natalie awakens the morning after Archie’s 18th birthday party
It’s hardly a happy ending – in the UK fewer than 1 per cent of reported rapes result in prosecution. It suggests, however, that Archie might in the end experience negative consequences for his actions. As things stand, it’s been plain sailing as his megabucks parents swoop in and threaten to sue his school for defamation after Natalie reports the assault.
Consent, which is written by Emma Dennis-Edwards, is chilling and infuriating. But it also perhaps suffers a lack of subtlety in its depiction of male group dynamics. Archie is painted as sensitive and vulnerable to peer pressure.
His pals, meanwhile, are a toxic mob who drag their knuckles and spill vitriol about their female classmates on WhatsApp. These are not particularly helpful caricatures. Not every toxic male signposts his villainy or acts like a bad guy from Game of Thrones.
Still, you’ll feel your rage building as Natalie awakens the morning after Archie’s 18th birthday party. Archie insists that what happened between them was consensual. He is supported by his twin, Alice, who makes a conscious choice to believe him over Natalie, her best friend. Natalie receives much the same response from her teacher – supportive but only until the principal becomes involved. At which point everything is hushed up.
Archie swans onward and is accepted to Oxford. Natalie leaves the school, her life in ruins. It feels all too plausible, and although the story is not based on a specific incident, Dennis-Edwards has drawn from the experiences of people posting to Everyone’s Invited, where contributors share stories of sexual abuse at school. It makes for bleak but important viewing.