TELEVISION / Graduates of the school of hard knocks

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The Independent Culture
TEN YEARS ago Jeff Perks made a film about 'knockers', East End lads who scraped a thin living for themselves, and a fatter one for their organisers, by selling rubbish door to door. It was a portrait, in the middle of the Eighties boom, of the grubbier fringes of enterprise; whatever else you might think about them, the film suggested, at least these young men were getting on their bikes (though, in this case, the bike happened to be a rusty transit van packed with household goods). The tone was affectionately complicit - OK, so they exploited people's charitable instincts in order to sell junk (part of the proceeds notionally went to help the mentally disabled) but that's all part of the game, innit?

Last night, in Cutting Edge (C4), the director went back to find out what had happened to them all. There were some lucky ironies (in the old film the boys set off from beneath a large banner announcing the 'London Enterprise Zone'; 10 years later the warehouse in the background is still disused, though the priapic tip of Canary Wharf can be glimpsed above the roofline) and there were ironies Perks had worked hard to get in. Cutting from a young man pitching worthless dusters to a shot of the same man 10 years later trying to get work for the bands on his record label, he suggested that there was no real difference. 'It set me in good stead for the real world of knockers,' said one contributor, recalling his days on the doorstep.

It would certainly stand you in good stead for the world of documentary film- making, which involves its own dubious practices of packaging and passing off. Perks showed he was no slouch at this in the earlier film, which included a staged fight between rival gangs of knockers that looked as if it had been filmed by David Lean, rather than a single surprised cameraman in the middle of a nasty scrap. Ten years on he appears to have gone legit, though last night's film was a little reticent about those whose lives didn't match the film's desired message of 'knocking by another name'. You got a lot more of the record-label executive (who had hustled his way to a small swimming-pool in the back garden) than you did of the taxi- driver who had worked at the knowledge.

The film was absolutely candid, though, about the way the years weigh on people. In 1983 these boys had no future but they lived from day to day anyway, so didn't appear to have noticed. Ten years on they've discovered the sour pleasures of foresight. It wasn't all bleak - one has trained as a photographer and is building a career as a photo-journalist, another has gone into acting - but the song on the credits ('Enjoy yourself / It's later than you think') had a decidedly mournful edge to it.

One of the current cliches on BBC 2 is the elaborate gag about secret crannies of Television Centre. Some basement corridor is dolled up with cobwebs and spooky lighting and we're asked to share the conceit that this is where television programmes are sent when they're naughty or where out of work DJs live out the rest of their natural.

The latest (and I hope the last) manifestation of this self-regarding device forms the framework for Inside Victor Lewis-Smith (BBC2), an attempt to transmit, in conditions of relative safety, the volatile humour of the BBC's home-grown media terrorist.

St Reith's (basement corridor dolled up with vaguely medical appurtenances) purports to be a hospital for those incurably damaged by working in television. Some of the details have the right acidity ('The Frank Bough Memorial Zip Injury Wing' for instance) but for the most part all this just interrupts what Lewis-Smith is best at - a hilarious projectile spew of music-hall groaners and wild connections. His five-contributions to TV Hell were the funniest things broadcast last year but that was at least partly due to the fact that they were come and gone like a ram-raider through Dixon's window. There are more laughs here than in most half-hour comedies but it still feels a little as though he's got a wheel-clamp on.