TELEVISION / Down, out and deprived of redemption

'SAFE', last night's Screenplay (BBC 1), was the most sustained passage of misery to cross our screens for many years. It was like getting into a fight with a drunk: a bruising, frightening scuffle that moved too fast and wouldn't stop for explanations or defence; and when it finished and Billy Bragg's doleful ballad sent you packing with a flea in your ear the best you could manage was to let your breath out in a long, exhausted sigh. It was simply horrible, and there were no consolations.

This is unusual for dramas of the lower depths, which often boast of showing it 'as it is' but rarely have the nerve to do just that. Redemption is the drug they can't kick, the fix they start to ache for as the misery mounts. Surely there must be some way out of here, some thread of pity or tenderness that they can use to harness the audience's sympathy as it begins to drift? Sometimes it's a matter of endowing the characters with charm or resilience, draping them in the beggars' ermine of noble endurance. Sometimes it's just a matter of providing them with good enough excuses for the things they do.

Al Ashton's ruthless script took neither course, rubbing your nose in the fact that life on the streets is not some sort of moral gymnasium but an abrasive, degrading life that leaves people too badly scarred to love or like. You might paraphrase the film that resulted like this: 'So you think you're a liberal? Well just watch this]'

Gypo, the film's principal character, is a walking rebuttal of simplistic notions about humane intervention. When he's allowed to visit his younger brother he uses the indulgence of the social worker to set fire to the children's home. Though he's been given a flat in Streatham, he returns night after night to an inner city shelter ('like a cross between Casualty and an Acid-house party' is the understated description of one regular), where he taunts and abuses the staff for their efforts. He can't even be bothered to beg, persuading his friend Kaz that 'clipping' (conning money out of men who hire her as a prostitute) is easier. She runs the risks, he pops off for a drink until she's finished work.

And just in case you thought Gypo was as bad as it got, the writer turned up Nosty, a low-rent loan-shark who occasionally stabs himself in the chest with a broken bottle in an attempt to get 'sectioned' and taken in. His previous attempts are recorded in hieroglyphics of scar-tissue and the doctor who stitches him up is now so numbed herself that she merely points out his carotid artery and suggests he aims a little higher next time.

'Safe' offered some explanations. There were hints at childhood abuse and rejection, and Nosty breaks down in tears at one point. These scenes effectively disrupted your contempt, but there was no wheedling to get you to like the characters. You were made to see that the fact that you hate and fear them is part of the damage done, that their capacity to 'behave decently' (the charitable person's means-test) has simply been destroyed.

The film also brought off a curious trick - it allowed you to sympathise with the homeless as a group without lying about how unsympathetic they can be as individuals. In the repetitions of the word 'safe' (a street term of praise) and in Kaz's final weeping appeal - 'I want to be inside' - you heard what had been drowned out by the violent rage of Gypo and Nosty - the wounded cry of 'unaccommodated man'.

The supporters of the eugenics movement would have had little difficulty in deciding what to do about the homeless. 'The great majority of men,' George Bernard Shaw said, 'have no right to existence but are a misfortune to higher man.' In The Almost Complete History of the 20th Century (C4) he said it in the rich Oirish tones of Jim Broadbent, dubbed over chuckling archive footage. This result was clever and pointed, but surely self-defeating as a didactic enterprise. If you already know what they are talking about, the blend of real fact with found images is hilarious - if you don't, you probably assume they're making it all up anyway.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before