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'My starting point is: paedophilia is evil'

Rowan Joffe is bracing himself for a storm of controversy over his drama Secret Life. But, he tells Angela Neustatter, the last thing he can be accused of is defending child abusers

Wednesday April 11, 2007
The Guardian

There's nothing strange about a first-time director worrying if his work will go down well. But given that Rowan Joffe's film about a sex offender, Secret Life, airs just as a scheme ("Sarah's law") is to be introduced in the UK that allows parents to access information about convicted paedophiles in their local area, he has nerves of a different order. "I'm frightened I may be seen as an apologist for paedophiles, with all the powerfully angry, vengeful feelings this arouses," he says.

In fact, this could not be further from the truth. "My interest was in exploring the challenging moral questions the situation of Charlie, a white, middle-class man in his 30s who has raped small girls, throws up," Joffe says fiercely. "My starting position is that paedophilia is evil. I would want to beat to death with a baseball bat anyone who sexually abused my little sister."

Joffe has spent more than four years as writer and director completing Secret Life, which centres on Charlie, who has served time for abusing two young girls and fears his compulsions will lead him to abuse again. Joffe, exhausted from a 24-hour editing stint when we meet, tells how the genesis of Secret Life was a news item on television in 2002 about the closure of Wolvercote, at the time the UK's only residential rehabilitation centre for sex offenders, which was achieving a significant reduction in re-conviction rates for sex offences compared with prison. Joffe's attention was caught by a silhouetted interview with a paedophile.

"I was interested by the fact that this man was aware of his immorality and that he posed a threat to children," Joffe says. "The man had benefited from learning strategies to prevent him re-offending, but with Wolvercote abruptly closed down, he was cast adrift in the community without support, and terribly fearful he would not be able to resist his compulsions."

Joffe saw how this man's internal conflict would make him a fascinating protagonist - but knew that writing it would be more testing than anything he had done so far. At 33, he already has an impressive track record as a drama writer. The son of director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) and actress Jane Lapotaire, he started writing plays at university, where he was given a Cameron Mackintosh bursary. His play Turkish Delight, about a belly-dancing housewife, won the Royal Television Society award for best drama in 2003, and two other TV dramas - Last Resort (2000), about a Russian single mother in an asylum centre, co-written with director Paul Pawlikowski, and Gas Attack (2001), about vigilantes using anthrax to get rid of asylum seekers, have been nominated for Bafta awards.

Joffe conceived Secret Life as a thriller, but quickly decided on a more nuanced approach, focusing on questions about how far we want to engage with Charlie's humanity and his possibility of change. He reshaped and rewrote it several times as he learned more about the pathology and behaviour of sex offenders and about the extremity of views they can provoke. He recounts how a driver on the set, whose grandfather had abused several kids, said: "Why don't we just castrate them?" But, Joffe adds: "The three key women involved in getting Secret Life made and shown are mothers, who very much approved of what I was doing."

Joffe's thoroughness, and his own familiarity with the subject matter, meant that production company Kudos - to whom he submitted his script - went on to choose him to direct. He recalls: "That was both thrilling and scary. What the film said, and how it did it, was down to me then. For a start, I wanted it to have absolute veracity and integrity and to be forensically accurate. But I did not want polemic. I didn't have an agenda except to pose the question, 'What is the best way to protect children?' "

The choice of Matthew Macfadyen, best known for roles in BBC1's Spooks and Joe Wright's 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, to play Charlie was an intentionally unusual piece of casting, because paedophiles are so often stereotyped in the media and in drama. Joffe explains: "They are men who are not only monstrous for what they have done but also appear monstrous - sleazy guys in raincoats. The reality is different. I felt Matthew would challenge the preconceptions, yet bring out the corrupt, sinister person Charlie is. I knew I had got it right when Matthew told me the play gave him butterflies in the stomach."

But, ultimately, is Secret Life advocating forgiveness for paedophiles? It is a question Joffe has been asked several times. He is emphatic: "Absolutely not. I see forgiveness as giving up anger, punishment and judgement. I don't believe that would be good for society. Forgiving Charlie wouldn't have helped him give up offending."

Joffe spent a long time determined not to be compared to his famous father. But then, he says, his beguiling schoolboyish face breaking into a grin, "I thought to hell with this. I'm proud of him, and his works like The Spongers and The United Kingdom really impressed me." His father has always been supportive of his work and offered technical advice for his directing debut that was "brilliantly helpful". Of Secret Life, Joffe says: "He has not yet seen the film, but he read the script a year ago. He said he thought it politically risky, but I gathered it met with his approval. He doesn't dish praise out in bucketloads."

Despite Secret Life's controversial subject matter, Joffe does not think of himself as a political director. He says, slightly apologetically, "I'm aware I'm privileged enough not to have to be political, although that's not altogether easy in a time when there is a feeling you have to justify your existence." Even so, there is a mission driving Secret Life."I am very proud of this film and I have the conviction it is a constructive thing to be doing," Joffe says. "It's a hugely emotive issue and I don't have an answer. But it will be pleasing if, in my first directing role, I can contribute to raising a rational debate."

· Secret Life is on Channel 4 at 9pm on April 19