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When a BEA Trident crashed near Staines in 1972 it wasn't long before a crowd gathered. "Traffic jams built up on the main road as hundreds tried to get a glimpse of the carnage," explained Black Box (Channel Four), over footage of the ghoulish cortege that formed on the hard shoulder. An enterprising street preacher had turned up to admonish the crowd with the imminence of their own doom, his sandwich board unsurpassably illustrated by a backdrop of crumpled metal and unscheduled corpses. And, it seems, 36 years on, the fascination of such events is as strong as ever. Black Box, a series of four serious programmes about air-crash investigation, has drawn audiences of well over 3 million people, placing it above some of Channel Four's most dependable ratings winners. And if it is carnage you are after, you get more than a glimpse. Immediately before that faintly disapproving line in the script the camera had zoomed in on a photograph of the wreckage to frame the dead body in the foreground, exposing a bald spot that was never going to fret its owner further. Footage of an Airbus A320 crashing at a French airshow was shown no less than three times, so that you could savour every detail of the way it eased into the tree line and the breathless hiatus between its disappearance and the rolling cloud of smoke and flame that marked its final disintegration. The survivors of another Airbus crash, discovered by a journalist in a snowy wood, were shown with the shock, and the blood, fresh on their faces.

I don't want to get too pious about this - in staring it seems to me we dip a toe into the knowledge of our own certain extinction and I'm not quite sure what it would be like to be flatly indifferent to such scenes. It's easy to think of a lot of reasons for not watching - from squeamishness to an imminent departure on an Airbus A320 - but none of them quite amount to a condemnation of those who do watch. And Black Box was undoubtedly compelling - with its cruelly truncated final words ("Oh shit", in a surprising number of cases) and its eerie computer reconstructions of catastrophe. Perhaps it is easier to be equable about the allure of such scenes, because the series was instructive as well as titillating (what else would you call footage of a dead body dangling from a pine tree? How dull does an imagination have to be before it needs that assistance?) After last night's concluding programme about pilot error (neurotic paraphrase: you can't live with 'em, you can't live without 'em) it concluded with a reassuring statistic - despite a thousand-fold increase in air-traffic there has been no increase in deaths since 1947, a remarkable record. "If you were to board a plane at random every single day," said the voice over, "on average it would be 26,000 years before you were involved in a major crash and even then you'd probably survive it." But nervous flyers know that some poor sod has to make up the average, and Black Box's more sotto voce instruction has been absolutely consistent - the problem that kills you is never the one you were expecting.

Respect (ITV), a guileless boxing drama starring Nick Berry, was even worse than Paparazzo, a previous outing from the restrictive charms of Heartbeat. Respect was about an East End boxer, knocked out of the fight game by a detached retina and hitting bottom before remaking his life. I say hitting bottom, but we're talking about a paddling pool - 100 hours of community service doesn't exactly represent the lower depths of depravity and nothing was allowed to remotely endanger the audience's affection for the star - he abhors drugs, won't fake a fight and mistreats his wife with a decorous patience that makes her intransigence positively perverse. The plot and dialogue would have shamed a boy's comic but it did contain one good line in an hour and a half of tedious screen time: "If you don't like sugar, don't stir it," says a policeman brusquely, handing our hero a cup of tea. If the remaining 89 minutes and 55 seconds had matched that for edge and economy and realism it might actually have been watchable.