REVIEW / When black and white gives way to colour

I'M NOT SURE that South Africa needs fictional violence just now, but it's getting it anyway. To add to the abundance of documentary material British viewers have been given in recent weeks (on some evenings its possible to feel that you've emigrated), Channel 4 began a South African made series, In a Time of Violence, at the weekend, and last night BBC 2 offered Douglas Livingstone's play Return to Blood River. They made an interesting comparison - both journalistic in their methods, both a little awkward in execution, but set apart by their point of view, one looking out and one looking in.

Return to Blood River was about prejudices, those of liberal piety as well as tribal hatred, while In a Time of Violence simply alerted you to some of your own you might have missed, its calculatedly colourful picture of Johannesburg life a reminder that even informed British viewers have a fairly monochrome view of South Africa. I can't be the only viewer who thought (with a faint blush), 'Oh, of course, there must be gay blacks there as well,' after two minor characters sashayed out of an elevator wearing fruit-cocktail shirts. And blacks who couldn't give a toss about the elections. And blacks who think the country's going to the dogs. And whites who panhandle prosperous black businessmen in the streets and get abuse for their pains.

As drama, Return to Blood River was ostensibly more sophisticated, its account of a long-time white exile returning for the funeral of his murdered father designed to display specific moral problems. After the death, Terry finds himself principal shareholder in the family firm, at odds with his unpleasant Afrikaner brother-in-law, Hannes (Warren Clarke in fine form), and his right-wing mother. The plot was as subtle in its operation as a see-saw. Someone has stolen money from the company. Is it Hannes and his partner Phil, a spivvy English emigre with a nasty line in racist banter? Or is it Daniel, the black accountant and Terry's old comrade on the protest lines?

This was a very tidy mess, sustained by the sort of lines that are more familiar from country house murders ('Only four people knew those codes'), and it left this viewer feeling mildly dissatisfied, partly because the research sat a little conspicuously in the dialogue, partly because it flinched from really disturbing your preconceptions. Having fingered Daniel as the thief, Livingstone then has him gunned down in front of his children by a trigger-happy policeman; he had a brief existence as a rounded human being, flawed and unhappy, but he died a stereotype, the black victim of state oppression.

In a Time of Violence is more clumsy in its manner, but has, at the very least, the advantage of real locations, a rich sense of place which drip-feeds information to you, even as you concentrate on something else. A hijacked truck figured in the plot of Livingstone's play; in the South African series you actually see a lorry with its licence plate painted in large figures on the roof, a detail which had no bearing on the plot but which none the less carried an almost subliminal message about crime and hovering helicopters. The dialogue too, a rich stew of English, Afrikaans and African that has the subtitles flickering on and off like faulty neon, conveys as much by its style as its content.

The plot is a Dickensian affair of overlapping stories, centred on a faintly decrepit Johannesburg apartment block to which the central characters, Bongani and Mpho, flee after witnessing an Inkatha killing. In its way it is as programmatic as Return to Blood River, but it has the virtue, at least for viewers here, of being programmed by South Africans. The details in Livingstone's play added definition to a picture you feel you already knew (that some white women now carry condoms in case they are raped, for instance). Those in In a Time of Violence actually changed the picture slightly, as when Bongani's uncle Zakes complains that the streets of Johannesburg are 'full of foreigners'. He had black immigrants from Zare and Mozambique in mind, not white journalists.