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For those who think chasing policemen around with a camera crew offers a literally copper-bottomed recipe for ratings success, the advent of the security camera has offered an unexpected bonus. Now, the policemen are the camera crew, providing a real-time narration as they pursue a car through winding country roads or try to fish a drunk out of the Thames, before he freezes to death. Both sights were available in Police, Camera, Action! (ITV), the car-chase footage introduced by Alastair Stewart as "this gripping sequence from Thames Valley police". It cannot be long, surely, before we have an awards ceremony for these grainy little thrillers: Best Supporting Officer, Best Shoplifter Tracking, Best Thermal Imager Sequence. Not to be left out, BBC1 is currently running Crime Beat, introduced by Martyn Lewis wearing his "more good news" hat.

Where Police, Camera, Action! pretends that it is educating the public out of its naughty ways, Crime Beat offers a consoling morale-boost, pepping up all those people that Crimewatch has left depressed and despairing. Cheer up, it says, people are fighting back and technology is on your side (unless you are a potential shoplifter, in which case this demonstration of shortening odds might leave you rather gloomy). In truth, of course, both programmes are driven by the fascination - the rapidly diminishing fascination - of watching real crimes and catastrophes as they take place. It's a way of appealing to the ambulance-chaser in all of us. (Presumably true addicts will video one of these programmes, sitting back later to enjoy a recording of a recording of a recording).

The sight of a new series called Rescue rather depressingly suggested that Channel 4 had joined the mad ruck that forms behind any flashing blue light, but the absence of an exclamation mark was mildly reassuring (on Carlton it would undoubtedly have been Rescue!) and the programme itself yet more so. The fig-leaf here is social history, but it is a capacious one that very nearly fills the screen. The first programme considered two large fires almost 30 years apart to examine how they had changed the fire service and, more importantly, how they demonstrated the apparently unchanging cost of technical improvement - human lives.

After two men were killed attempting to extinguish a massive underground fire in the Smithfield poultry market, the fire brigade was forced to improve its systems. The old culture, in which "smoke eater" was the highest praise for a fireman, suggesting a willingness to get in close to the seat of the blaze, gave way to a more cautious, safety-conscious way of proceeding. The smoke was "as thick as Old Newgate's knocker" recalled one veteran vividly, too much for even the boldest "smoke eater" to bite off. But when it came to the King's Cross fire, the lessons had to be learnt again in new ways. Much of this depended on the vicarious thrill of disaster - the accounts of metal glowing red-hot as tube-trains pistoned air into the blast furnace of the ticket office - but behind it was a more abstract truth, that catastrophe is sometimes the only way to convince people that it might be time for a change.

Rescue was followed by An Inspector Calls, the first of a series on the unsung heroes who battle against the less conspicuous threats to our fragile civilisation - illegal roof extensions, for example, or a spot of back- yard car-breaking. Alan Halfpenny is the Red Adair of dodgy loft conversions, prepared to stake out a property to get his men, in this case an understandably bad-tempered Sikh. "If we don't get any co-operation then we'll go in and hit them hard," said Mr Halfpenny. He was as good as his word, turning up with a team of builders and several policeman to remove the pantiled cancer from our society. Without this intervention, he suggested, "It'll just be total chaos, total anarchy". An Inspector Calls, with its mock- heroic soundtrack and dry narration, begged to differ.