TELEVISION LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Cameras can be attached to almost anything now, even a fireman's helmet, if we are to believe Firefighters (BBC1). But this technological advance is not an unmixed blessing for audiences. True, it gives you a fireman's eye view of the extinguishing of a blazing bin-liner, but is this really a sight for which we have all been holding our breath? As vital and admirable as fireman are, do we really want to spend six weeks on watch, milling around with them as they endure the false alarms and the incendiary bathos of chip- fires and fumbled fag-ends? It may be a little unfair to load the sins of a genre onto a single example of it, but coming after a whole string of blue-light documentaries, Firefighters is the most readily available target. It will do very well, anyway, to exemplify the failure of ambition that such programmes represent - the passivity with which they accept that fiction can dictate the terms for documentary.

Perhaps, though, we have just become satiated with uniform-stalking - belatedly realising that a life composed of other people's emergencies is nothing like as exciting as we might have imagined. "Back at the hospital, the lift has been stuck for over an hour," said the voice-over at one point. And, back in our living rooms, we were beginning to have a good idea what it must feel like to be stuck inside it. There are glimpses of proper subject matter to be gleaned here, over the shoulders of the boys in black, but it was telling that Firefighters was considerably more interesting when the alarm failed to go off and you had a chance to listen to these men off duty, winding each other up or simply playing Trivial Pursuit: "In which area of Manchester did LS Lowry spend most of his life?" "I dunno. The Arndale Centre?"

Firefighters represents one answer to the question of how to employ the new technology. United Kingdom (BBC2) offers another and, to my mind, a considerably more interesting one. The titles for this moveable feast of a series (the programmes vary from a few minutes to an hour in length) display an unusual credit, that of "film-maker". This is because the raw material is gathered by a single person using a Hi-8 camera and filming takes place for much longer than a conventional documentary shoot. The footage is then handed over to Colin Luke, the series director, who prepares the final film in consultation with those who toted the camera. This method (which was used by the same director for Modern Times's memorable film about nannies) has raised some eyebrows in television circles - the anxiety being that the late intervention of a detached eye could break the contracts of trust that have been established between film-maker and subject. You wouldn't easily be able to tell from the finished product whether that has happened - but the results clearly deliver an intimacy which would be difficult to achieve with more conventional forms of film-making. And the economies of patience (single-person crews can afford to wait around while events develop) also deliver real advantages.

This was most striking in Saturday night's programme Working for the Enemy, a film gifted with one of those characters who press on an inflamed social nerve. Kevin had been unemployed for 18 years and had no intention of surrendering that status, whatever the plans of the local social security office. If Kev had been stupid or vicious, this wouldn't have been very illuminating, but he wasn't - he was talented (he drew striking pictures, which he filed with a care that belied his pose of renegade insouciance), as well as nimble-witted. The scene in which he sparred with a job-training officer was a comedy of mutual incomprehension in which the social Band-aid kept coming unstuck because Kev simply wouldn't accept that he was hurt. In fact, his logic of non-collaboration was flawed - and I think, at heart, he knew it - but the film let you get close enough to see those doubts, particularly when his own sense of propriety was aroused by his girlfriend's drug-taking. I still don't buy the title's implicit pitch for thematic unity, but United Kingdom is, at least, establishing itself as a brand-name of quality.

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