TELEVISION / Fresh water

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The Independent Culture
YOU SIT up straight when Mary Goldring talks to you, as if your knees were tucked beneath an ink- stained desk. Last night the lesson in The Goldring Audit (C 4) was about water companies and you could be forgiven for wondering at first whether you had wandered into the wrong classroom. Surely this was for the juniors? We use water to wash with, we were told in stern tones, and also to drink.

Her simplicity, though, is essential to her method and, to use a phrase she is fond of, woe betide you if you mistake it for shallowness. Her principal skill is to take nothing for granted, detecting complex traps in the apparently obvious. There was little in the programme that would have been entirely new to an assiduous reader of most broadsheet papers, but Goldring's particular skill is to take such matter and merge it with less elevated television techniques - the how-to explanation or the investigative documentary.

Sometimes she doesn't pounce when you expect her to, as if she's distracted by a beady-eyed concentration on the whole picture. Michael Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, who turned out to be a definite debit once the audit was finished, got away with murder when asked about privatisation. 'The history of investment in the water industry,' he said smoothly, 'suggested we would not be likely to get (increased) investment in the public sector.' Let's run that again in slow motion: 'The history of investment in the water industry,' (in other words past governments' investment) suggested that 'we' (the current government) would not be likely 'to get' (to spend) more money in the 'public sector'. You waited for a shriek of outrage from Goldring but it never came.

On the other hand she was as keen as mustard when it came to the EC. Talking about environmental standards, which oblige the new privatised companies to considerable capital expenditure and us to increased water bills, she first noted the efficiency of current low- tech cleansing methods then added balefully: 'The EC thinks we're Not . . . Clean . . . Enough.' To capture the tone of the last three words, imagine a woman administering three sharp slaps to the back of a small child's leg. This is liable to send you slinking for the remote control in the hope that you can change over before she spots you, but it would be a mistake. She ended with another firm smack at the government for ignoring the customer - and it's a while since we had such a robust champion.