Last Night's Television

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The Independent Culture
There's a distinct graphic piety about the way statistics are treated on television these days. Rather like the improving texts that would have adorned a Victorian parlour they are often presented without commentary. Framed like this they offer an admonishing text which allows us to meditate upon the sinfulness of our ways or the permanent duty of social improvement. BBC2's new season of programmes about bullying (Bully) has already shown itself to be heavily dependent on such pieces of sociological pokerwork but Kate Broome's thoughtful film Sticks and Stones, which began the season, fortunately restricted itself to just one - the fact that 10 children every year kill themselves because of bullying. What's so depressing about this statistic is not so much the number (around 6,500 children between 1 and 15 die every year, so this isn't an unacknowledged holocaust). It's the disproportion between the problem and what its victims perceive as a "solution". Even a traffic accident is likely to feel less senselessly cruel to the bereaved, partly because it involves no calculated malignity.

That fact couldn't be described as an inviting way to begin a television programme. What's on offer, after all? Acute emotional pain, idiotic brutality, lasting grief. If you already know that bullying is terrible and already have childhood memories that you wince from - whether as perpetrator or victim - then why would you watch? Because, I suppose, these are exemplary lives - and there might be parents or children watching who will be able to find a different ending, besides a noose or a bottle of pills. Broome's film was very moving - her access to video film of children who had effectively been tortured to death adding a particularly piercing element to the parents' recollections. But her most effective decision was to let you believe for a long time that you were hearing the story of four deaths - a grimly repetitive litany of parental helplessness and silent endurance. When it became clear, very late in the film, that one victim had survived, the effect was of a last-minute reprieve. Here, at least, was someone who could tell us how it felt to emerge from the other side and whose advice always to share the pain with someone had the force of bitter experience behind it.

The Feel Good Factor (C4) also deploys a lot of sampler statistics, but at such machine-gun speed that they can only have a subliminal effect - I managed to note the fact that one in four people believe that they will be mugged next year but for all the effect the others had I might as well have been staring at the carpet. Their purpose here is purely impressionistic, you feel - a quick burst of percentages to suggest that the producers have done their homework. The programme itself is strangely reminiscent of that sketch from The Fast Show, in which a gormless youth strides along, excitedly describing the mundanities of life as "Brilliant!" - partly because the opening script was delivered from five or six different locations and partly because Mark Little shares something of the characters' guileless enthusiasm. "Well, there it is!" he said delightedly, after a council official had assured him that street lights would be repaired "as and where possible".

It's a bit difficult to work out what the series is up to, it's so frantically busy. But it appears to be something between a municipal makeover (locals are challenged to improve their own circumstances) and general communitarian cheerleading. A great deal of inventiveness has been applied to statements of the obvious - such as the sequence in which a heartbeat monitor and a pair of video glasses were used to demonstrate that people get nervous when walking through dark alleys or past gangs of drunken youths. And if statistics have taken the place of religious texts then Little makes a very good fist of playing the evangelical preacher. "Things can change! It's up to us!" he exclaimed at the end, a can-do zeal that appeared to have bypassed Sunderland - where only two people had turned up to the special Neighbourhood Watch meeting arranged for the film.

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