Michael Cooper, who also went by the nickname Mini, was an exceptionally clever, charismatic and cute 11-year-old from County Durham. Nonetheless, Mini’s difficult upbringing and mismanaged potential led him to be recognised as a serial arsonist, determined too dangerous to be allowed his freedom. Almost unbelievably, both a church and his own home, with his father asleep inside it, were set aflame by this lovable child.
This inflammatory documentary first aired in 1975 and remains as shocking today as it was for contemporary viewers across the UK. Initially, I interpreted the juxtaposition of Mini’s charisma and his criminality as an eerie indicator of a nascent psychopath. In a disturbingly calm and collected manner, Mini recounts his indictable actions in a series of interviews; the only time he becomes excitable and loses his composure is to giggle at the aftermath of his misdeeds.
It should come as no surprise that, as with most deviant individuals, beneath the tip of the iceberg lies a problematic childhood and family setting. With this in mind, during the course of this 45-minute mini-documentary, psychiatrists and social workers probe the charming yet unruly child to establish how best to handle this perturbing case of juvenile delinquency.
The case of Michael Cooper is both a fascinating psychological study of a poor child driven to destructive behaviour due to improper care as much as it is the tragic tale of a bright, endearing child mistreated and misapprehended. Mini was a canny kid and perfectly aware that he had been sent to a special school for his own good. At school, he suggested the introduction of a points-based system, which would grant more privileges on the basis of good behaviour. He also fully understood that his compulsion to steal and burn things is deemed unacceptable by society. He seems entirely aware of the dangers of fire, expressing that he only ever had the intention of satisfying his urges and never of harming anyone. During a character-building assignment, when asked what ambitions he had, the quick-witted boy expressed his wish to destroy the IRA army camp, guns and Newcastle United Stadium.
Mini was critical of his parents’ belief in God, arguing: “you can’t believe in anybody if you haven’t seen them”. He was so strong in his beliefs and morals, that he burned the school church in reaction to receiving what he deemed the unfair punishment of a beating from the headmistress for refusing to say prayers. He was aware that being so principled was getting him into trouble, but he preferred to be punished for upholding his principles and doing what he wanted than to be told by others what he could and could not do. He appreciated the notion of punishment for discipline and education but deemed his father excessively violent for repeatedly punching him in the ribs.
Mini tells the tragedy of a remarkable youngster whose capabilities and flaws were inappropriately accommodated for. A precocious personality of this sort had the potential to develop into a formidable, monstrous criminal or a promising, ingenious citizen, depending on how he was nurtured. I really never have seen or heard of a case quite like this and the exceptional execution of the documentary produces an incredibly thought-provoking and compelling 45-minute watch.
In fact, the story of Mini feels both so real and surreal, that upon first watching it, I wondered whether it really was a documentary, especially since the cinematography was so markedly brilliant. The framing and editing allowed for a whole extra layer of story-telling and emotion to be conveyed purely through the visuals. The unhurried composition of this short documentary includes long, patient takes, which enables the viewer to pick up on subtleties and telling silences during the recorded interviews and conversations.
Apparently, director Franc Roddam made follow-up documentaries about Mini’s struggles as an adult. Despite being unable to find these clips online as of yet, Michael Cooper’s book Mini and Me promises to offer further insight into his life for those interested.
Illustration: Verity Laycock