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The Independent Culture
Malcolm Brinkworth has established a profitable small-holding in the documentary field, supplying what at first glance look to be incompatible commodities - schadenfreude and envious fantasies. But here lies the real genius of his modest operation. In his accounts of flight from the strains of urban life he delivers both simultaneously - and it is left largely up to the viewer to decide whether the life depicted is better or worse than the life abandoned.

The Good Life (C4), his latest exercise in this compulsive genre, began with a shampoo advert for rural isolation - ice melting on a limpid stream, beams of sunlight slanting into a woodland glade, the wind caressing the upland moorgrass. Murray Nash, hawk on his arm, was giving an endorsement for the stress-relieving properties of the Wye Valley, and he was well- trained to do so, having been, he said, a "top salesman" before packing in his job for a life of qualified self-sufficiency in the Wye Valley. "Qualified" because it later turned out that only invalidity benefit stood between the Nashes and a life of rural indigence. This struck you as a rather paradoxical outcome to his leap for freedom: he had given up the rat race because it was making him ill, but now he has to be ill to make ends meet. Unfortunately, for all its benefits of close community and relative serenity, the countryside seems quite able to supply the requisite amounts of stress.

Roger Withnell had followed a similar course to Murray's - he used to work for IBM as a senior executive, but is now employed by a large selection of livestock as a 24-hour room service. The animals in question were endearingly bucolic - big rufous pigs and geese that looked to have stepped straight out of a children's illustration - but they were far more demanding, on the face of it, than any office Machiavelli. Roger and his wife rise at around 4.30am and work fairly solidly until they go to bed. Where once the sustaining dream might have been a Caribbean holiday or three weeks in the Dordogne, they were now looking forward to the day when they might be able to squeeze a few hours off between being trampled by goats or hand-weeding a five-acre field. Both insisted the move had been the right one for them, but they did so in voices that recognised they were paying a much higher price than they had bargained for.

The case of Alan Reynolds was rather more plainly melancholy. He had given up a job in an engineering firm to buy a goat-farm in Wales. You wondered first of all whether the previous owners had sold in order to take up a less stressful life in central London; you wondered next whether it was a very good idea for Alan to pin all his hopes on a product - goat's cheese - which he didn't even like very much. But he was determined, packing up the estate car for a pioneering trip west. Goats do not believe in a settling-in process - the day after they arrived at their isolated farm ("no robberies, because you'd never find the place if you were a burglar," said Alan's sceptical father), the Reynolds had to start milking. Alan's sober projections took a knock almost immediately - the yield was down, which meant they had less cheese to sell. He was one of those people who give bad news in a funny voice, as if the diction will somehow swaddle the sharp truth, but it was still evident that things weren't going well. Even his consolations were rather gloomy: "If it all goes horribly wrong," he said, "then we can sell up and buy somewhere not quite as nice."

It was at such points, when people were putting on their brave faces, that you realised how these classic forms of observational documentary have been left exposed by the new video-diary styles. Malcolm Brinkworth was able to give you the dark lining to the silver cloud, but he could capture only hints of the hidden interior, where anxiety must sometimes turn into despair and ordinary fatigue into exhaustion.