Tales From a Hard City proves an engaging meditation

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I suppose the characters in Tales From a Hard City (Channel 4) would be best described as self-confidence tricksters - 40-watt bulbs with fantasies of working in a lighthouse - but if you really wanted to use the term dismissively you'd have to work out exactly what they had lost from the deception. Kim Flitcroft's engaging meditation about the triumph of hope over experience looked, at first glance, as if it was a simple satire - extracting a broad comedy from the yawning gap between the expectations of her subjects and the grim limitations of their lives. By the end though, you wondered whether there wasn't some grace in dreaming - even a faint sense that refusing to face facts might be the best survival strategy.

"You've got to do something to earn a bit of money," said Glen, though his conception of "earn" is more forgiving than most. "Handbags in cars," he explained, "chequebooks..." The camera tagged along behind him as he mooched around Sheffield, smoking dope, visiting his friends, juggling his multiple debts. His one talent appears to be singing "Wild Thing" at karaoke nights, a narrow foundation on which to build an international career, though this doesn't seem to daunt Wayne Chadwick "entrepreneur and nightclub owner". Wayne is the Mr Magoo of the talent-spotting world and he thinks Glen has possibilities. Explaining his fee structure as an agent, he points out that transport costs will have to be deducted from profits first "if we need to go down to London or Europe". Imaginary profits from an imaginary talent, eaten into by imaginary costs. Only the faith was real.

With his power-braces and oversized cigar there was something essentially innocent about Wayne - innocent of common sense anyway. He looked like a big kid who'd been given a Media Mogul Dressing-Up Set for his birthday and had since refused to wear anything else. Glen wasn't his only project: he had also invested in Sarah, a single mother whose unique selling point was that she had been arrested by the Greek police for suggestive dancing. Wayne was convinced he could finesse the resulting flurry of tabloid headlines into a chart-topping hit, particularly after arranging for several members of the audience to become "overwhelmed" at the launch of "Dirty Dancing". You would say that Wayne was clutching at straws here, except that straw would give altogether too buoyant an idea of his acts' prospects.

Paul, an "actor and model", was similarly untroubled by the scale of the obstacles that lay in his path. In an endearing display of chutzpah he spent most of the film trying to persuade local showrooms to part with a sponsored car. "I'll guarantee, when I'm an international star I'll still be driving your car," he solemnly promised two bemused Skoda salesmen, who were clearly having some difficulty in associating their product with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. When he wasn't trying to hustle some wheels, Paul was beating off the attention of Anton, a self-styled image consultant. "I want to get behind the personal, behind the image," pleaded Anton. "I want your raw energy, I want to get that out of you." It wasn't money that motivated him, he insisted, but a "love for art". The horrible suspicion dawned on you that Anton might be sincere, that his own survival was bound up in this fantasy of expertise. You were looking at an ecosystem founded on equal parts of hope and bullshit - in which no claim was too ludicrous to be aired. "You're gonna sell to the 14, 15-year-olds," Wayne's musical adviser told Glen. "That. Is. Your market." Wayne looked thoughtful at this assessment of his demographic firepower, forgetting for another sweet moment that his only market is the one where they buy secondhand video recorders - no questions asked.