TELEVISION / Loser takes all

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THE ECOLOGY of human misfortune makes a particularly rich field of study for television documentary makers; bailiffs, loan-sharks, repo-men and enforcers are the equivalent of predators for the wildlife film-maker - creatures who will dependably deliver the thrill of the chase and bursts of violent action. But less savage organisms can also thrive in the tough world of recession and in Cutting Edge (C 4) last night, Malcolm Brinkworth turned his cameras on two milder elements of the fiscal food-chain - the claims adjuster and the insurance assessor. From their names you could be forgiven for thinking that they were essentially the same thing, but as Brinkworth's intriguing film revealed they are in fact natural opponents, warily eyeing each other over the carrion left by fire, theft and flood.

The adjuster works for the insurance company, intent on sniffing the faintest trace of exaggeration in a claim, while the assessor works for the policy-holder for a cut of the final payout, a fact that inclines them to be imaginative in assessing the worth of a fire-damaged moquette sofa. Assessors are normally on the scene of a fire before the fire brigade, anxious to press a business card into the owner's shaking fingers. Assessors are not popular with adjusters, who tend to use words like 'ambulance chasers' when they are mentioned. (Fortunately Brinkworth remained strictly neutral over this difference of professional opinion - documentary makers feed on misfortune too and can't be too superior.)

Much of what you saw was pretty routine; raking over the ashes and checking the small print to make sure that nobody got what they hadn't paid for or didn't deserve. A snooker-hall owner whose building had been carbonised was told that his policy had lapsed - and was, understandably, gutted. A man whose wife's jewellery had been stolen was asked to estimate the size of the diamond in her ring. 'Well, it was smaller than a pea' he said, leaving the adjuster some room for manoeuvre. Most cases you saw were settled amicably and promptly with very little forensic voodoo. If they like the look of you, it seems, you'll probably get your payout and if you threaten to break their legs for asking questions they start to get suspicious.

On its own this would have made bland viewing, but fortunately for Brinkworth he was also present at the encounter between the Rottweiler and the owner of Shirley's Shoes. The Rottweiler was an adjuster who has been so named by his colleagues because 'if I've got my teeth into a case I don't let go until I've got it sorted'. He appears to proceed on the basis that everyone is guilty until proved innocent, an approach that made this policy holder decidedly testy. Indeed you got the feeling after a while that the Rottweiler wouldn't even take it for granted that you owned your own legs unless you offered him invoices for their purchase and stock numbers connecting them to your torso. The insulting obduracy of his performance here reminded you why loss adjusters have a bad name.

Teenage Health Freak returned with an episode which neatly showcased its strengths and weaknesses. The first half - gentle observational comedy about adolescent angst (impertinent little sisters, getting served in bars, unrequited lust) - is funny and nicely delivered by Alex Langdon, while the second half - farcical plot developments - is a touch hysterical and misses the point. The sequences shot through the health freak's video are so much funnier than the rest that you wonder why they don't do the whole thing on Handicam - it would be a lot cheaper and a lot more cheerful.

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