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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The 44-year-old insisted there had been “no fallings out” with the other members of the band
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style