Compulsive spectacle

TV Review: Network First
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The Independent Culture
At first glance, the Network First (ITV) documentary about a late- night local radio phone-in, was a singularly indolent affair. It had gone fishing for stories of human misery in a place where the fish actually jump out of the water into your net. Fortunately, the phone-in they filmed was called The Pulse, which allowed the film-makers to imply that they weren't simply bystanders at an accident but actually had some medical purpose there - they weren't just gawping, you understand, they were taking the nation's heartbeat. Irregular and weak, if this selection box of fecklessness and despair is representative, which I very much doubt. A lot of very boring people phone late-night talk-shows, mostly for the ineffable thrill of hearing their own voices uttering pearls of wisdom like "Oooh... I don't know... I really don't". But the people here, apart from some awesomely vacant callers who couldn't even remember why they were on the phone, weren't really dull at all.

Still, it proved, as accidents often do, a strangely compulsive spectacle. Flo, one of Alex's regulars, tucks herself up in bed to listen to the show, occasionally phoning in to pass on uplifting titbits, like the story about a man who'd found a condom in his tin of tuna (found it just too late, by the sound of it). But Flo doesn't really need advice - just a nocturnal equivalent of the garden fence, over which to lean and natter.

With others, you weren't quite sure where the advice might even begin. Jim was steadily drinking himself to death, at two bottles a day, and simply wanted to pass the news on. Mick, a single parent, wanted help with his dim-witted daughter Ros, who wants to go on the pill. Her sister, Katrina, is contemplating sex too, but for the moment is using the Prison Service as a contraceptive - she is determined to lose her virginity to Lee, who got locked up before she could get knocked up. Ros, meanwhile, has scribbled her own moral code on her bedroom wall, already a messy palimpsest of teenage social announcements: "Sex is evil, evil is a sin; sin gets forgiven, so get stuck in."

Hazel doesn't want to have sex at all, as she was brutally abused when she was 12. Now her abuser is getting out of prison and she is terrified, seeking reassurance that neither Alex nor the police can supply. She is eventually offered a mobile phone which apparently doesn't work outside the house - which gives her the limited consolation of being able to walk from the living room into the bathroom and still being able to call for help (presumably the police bought these devices at a knock-down price, the "immobile phone" having proved something of a blind alley in terms of portable telecommunications).

It wasn't entirely clear whether ringing The Pulse had improved Hazel's life, but if she was simply after some sympathetic attention she certainly hit the bonus button - like everyone here, she would have settled for local radio but she got national television turning up on her doorstep. I would have thought this unwelcome additional publicity might not have sweetened her abuser's intentions towards her (he was named and shown in the programme) but then questions of privacy and ethical restraint did not seem uppermost in the director's mind. Later a bulimic caller was filmed going through the ritual preparations for a bingeing session, a sequence that seemed unlikely to help her on the road to recovery.

The overall effect was rather depressing - a catalogue of ignorant prejudice and grievous damage - and the only consolation was Alex Hall's brisk way with some of her less appealing callers. Kevin rang in essentially asking for permission to dump his "ugly" wife and have an affair with someone at work. He didn't get it: "That's evil Kevin!" replied Alex bracingly, coming as close as anyone did to a declaration of morality. Then, as with any accident, the fascination eventually palled and the crowd drifted away.

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