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TELEVISION: Counsel for the prostitution

WHAT SELLS? Sex sells. Violence sells. Houses sell. Nothing there we didn't know. Much of the time, it all seems very familiar. But sometimes, occasionally, a prime-time documentary takes you where you haven't been before and surprises you.

One such was Under the Sun: What Kind of Gentleman Are You After? (BBC2, Wed), the tale of 32-year-old Joel, owner and chief stud of his own Australian escort business. A cabinet-maker who ran into debt, Joel thought he would use his talent at sex as an earner, and was now doing pretty well.

We first discovered Joel selling himself to a new client on the phone (a set- up, since she was being filmed simultaneously). What was she after in a man? "Relatively taut," she replied, aware - as we were - that she was herself relatively untaut. Would it be forward, she said, for her to ask, er, how big? Joel was ready for this. "Nine and a quarter inches, thick and uncut," was how he described himself. "Fancy having such a small dick!" I thought to myself.

Joel's first act, when he arrived at the rendezvous wearing a leather jacket, a dopey smile and a lousy haircut, was to phone the office. I suddenly realised that he reminded me of nothing so much as an emergency plumber. Or, given his appendage and his box of sex aids, the man from Dynarod ("Ah yes, I think I see the problem, madam. If we just try this ...") But he did come with glowing reviews from his female clientele. "I've never come so quickly in my life, ever," said one. "It's like eating at a very good restaurant," stated another. Well, which is it, quality or speed?

The cost was pounds 110 for two hours, which included the hire of an anti-jealous- husband security guard, and seemed a bit cheap to me. But everybody was keen to show that it was all good, clean liberated fun. You want to get your rocks off? What better than the Zipless Fuck? "He did the deed, he left; it was a mutual adult consenting thing," said the single mum.

Adult yes. Consenting, yes. Mutual? Well, no. As she admitted, "Every woman wants to be cuddled afterwards. I miss that." We also got to see the condoms hidden under Joel's tongue, and the wife and four kids. And it was rather tragic. What will she tell their daughters about why Daddy's away so much? We never found out.

More sex now, but even less mutual. Witness: The Devil Amongst Us (C4, Thurs) was the work of a feisty journalist called Dea Birkett, and dealt with paedophiles. At first I feared that she'd been gulled, when - in her introduction - she told us "just five children were murdered by paedophiles last year" (true, but right now she will be answering letters from the relatives of some of those "just" five), and when she talked about paedophiles being "demonised and loathed". We needed, she said ominously, to "understand".

But my worry was misplaced. Dea was on the side of the kids, and knew exactly who these people were, repeatedly refusing to accept their own versions of themselves. "Why should an eight-year-old be attracted to a 50-year-old man like you?" was one question that sliced through the plausible self-justification of a campaigner for paedophile rights.

Nevertheless, she was too subtle for some. The Daily Mail on Friday stated in a news report that the programme "had portrayed paedophiles as victims and gave them a platform to advocate sex with children ... [and] portrayed [them] as victims who needed to be understood." If I were Birkett, I would put this libel in the hands of a decent QC and force a retraction. Certainly the paedophiles attempted to depict themselves in this way. The key thing is that Birkett, however, was having none of it.

But what I wondered was where it all left us. Paedophiles are ruthless, mendacious and manipulative men, whose sense of self-justification has been immensely reinforced by communicating with each other on the Internet - as was clearly shown in the programme. Fine - we knew most of that. Now, what are we going to do about it? Dea seemed to have no idea.

Still, she was far more interesting than Inside Story: House Traders (BBC1, Tues) which told us, at inordinate length - and with the accompaniment of an infuriating cha-cha played on a Wurlitzer - that estate agents are exactly what we always thought them to be, pretty ordinary people who sell houses. The surprise here was not in the agents, but in the fact that the programme makers were - on the whole - fair to them.

Anyway, 55 minutes was a hell of a long time to have to watch to be reminded of one salient fact that one hadn't forgotten in the first place - which is how precarious the whole business of selling or buying a house can be. The awful young Ashes, a pair of house-selling prickteasers, pulled out of a sale at the last possible moment, collapsing a chain and losing the potential vendors of their house all that they had invested in surveyor's and other fees. OK, people change their minds. But it was their selfishness, their failure to observe the decencies, the lack of any regret or apology, which was so signal. In fact, they seemed to feel that in some way they'd been wronged.

This is the same egoism that provided the raw material for two new, competing series: Neighbours At War (BBC1, Mon), and - rushed out on the same day, with a series to follow at some point in the future) the indistinguishable Neighbours From Hell (ITV, Mon). By the way, next week ITV will show Nannies From Hell, so nominations are hereby invited for other programmes in the ITV "... From Hell" series. I've already got Bosses From Hell, Drivers From Hell, Girlfriends From Hell, Shop Assistants From Hell and, of course, the ultimate: TV Series From Hell.

The idea of these programmes is to show people having a thoroughly bad time as they encounter the barking mad, the downright bad, and the morally ugly. But such an ignoble exercise requires a figleaf to cover its shameful parts, so that we are not embarrassed by our own voyeurism. Thus spurious salience is used as the excuse for filling prime-time schedules with what might be called Schadenfreude TV (or "Glad I'm Not There").

The BBC version opened with the words, "throughout the cities and shires of Britain, neighbours at war!" The ITV equivalent of this was the almost identical "all over the country, neighbours are at each other's throats!" Now, in terms of geographical spread, these meaningless statements may be hard to argue with. But is it the case, as is implied, that many more of us than ever before are in a state of perpetual enmity with those who live next door? The BBC programme at least provided some headline figures. Over one in 14 of us report our neighbours to the police, we were told. But how was this statistic arrived at? Did it just divide the number of households in the country by the total number of calls? In which case it could mean practically anything. We weren't told. It was no part of the remit of this show to answer such dull questions as "should we really be worried by this?", let alone "and what might we do about it?"

Such questions are, of course, the province of good old unfashionable current affairs, now largely relegated to the scheduling ghettoes of Saturday evening and Sunday lunchtime, and in low-audience bits of the evening on BBC2, competing with the soaps. And most of it made with a fraction of the budgets available to docs.

But sometimes, it makes much with little. Tsar Boris: the Yeltsin Years (BBC2, Sat) was BBC correspondent Bridget Kendall's fascinating look at the vulgar populist who runs Russia, his tennis-club cronyism, the inside story of the coup that Yeltsin himself nearly instigated when he thought he might lose the 1996 elections, and why - against the odds - he has succeeded.

Less confident was Compass (BBC2, Mon), a new "high policy" series, the first of which was an uncompromising attempt to tell us what trouble we are in over pensions. Its presenter was Dr Ngaire Woods, an Oxford fellow, but we barely saw her. Instead we had 30 minutes of wallpaper pictures, interviews and dull graphics. What, I wondered, did stakeholder pensions have to do with the Docklands Light Railway?

The moral here is that if you have a star presenter, use her to tell the story and to connect with the viewer. Don't give us words about a pensions crisis over pictures of stippled water. The producer could do worse than look at Walden on Heroes (BBC2, Tues), in which Bwummie Bwian talks for 28 minutes without much hesitation, repetition or deviation. This week's hero was Churchill, whose wartime influence was brilliantly summed up: "He thought so well of us, it seemed shameful to disappoint him." The intriguing thing about Walden, however, is that occasional, twinkling, little secret smile. It always suggests that he somehow knows something to his own advantage. Like - for instance - nine and a quarter inches, thick and uncut.