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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.