Television Review

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The Independent Culture
WHAT I always say is: "Where there's muck, there's meta-phors." Towards the end of Modern Times: Treasures from the Tip (BBC2), Jason Jones, a waste-management officer for Southend-on-Sea, remarked: "You do start getting some funny ideas... the fact that all these goods that we get during our lives, and work for, end up in a hole in the ground. It's like us at the end of the day."

A sense of wastefulness clearly weighs on people in his line of work. The scale of waste we now generate is shocking. The Mayor of Southend was wheeled on, in full Liberace- style regalia, to recite the statistics: 81,000 tonnes of rubbish - enough to fill 25,000 double-decker buses; one million car trips to the dumps, every year, in the one borough. The situation, said Jones, cannot be sustained; the crisis will come in our lifetimes.

Jason Adams, who helps to run his family's waste-disposal business, showed off some of the things he had salvaged from the dump: a 200-year-old oil painting, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. There were rows and rows of mowers and strimmers in perfect working order, entire suites of garden furniture, mostly left behind by old people who had died or gone to live in homes. One man was getting rid of an ancient gramophone in its glossy wooden cabinet. It had belonged to his late wife's grandfather, and she said she couldn't stand smelling him every time she opened it. (It occurred to me that it was big enough for him to be wedged inside.)

Elsewhere, however, the film contradicted this gloomy, dust-to-dust line. Lorraine Charker's cameras went to Ghana, where sackloads of our old shoes and clothes end up in the markets. Michael, formerly a bus-driver in Hackney, was building a fortune from selling discarded British fridges - we saw him running his hands over the trim, inviting his customers to admire the "lovely interior". He spoke of his ambition to make enough money to go into politics, maybe even rule the country.

And the cameras cut from Jones, waxing philosophical, to shots of Steve, one of Adams's colleagues, playing with his children. Steve used to be a wealthy money-broker, but decided that he preferred a job where he could spend more time with his family. Then we saw Adams playing with his sisters' kids: Barry, the Adams patriarch, confessedly keen to see his line continued, pointed out to the camera that Jason is 31 and single, and would make a lovely husband and father. From the way he seized the opportunity, you gathered he had learned not to waste anything.

The conclusion you were led to was that yes, we are like rubbish: not because we end up in a hole, but because, one way or another, everything lives on. The fridges live on in Ghana, we live on through our children. Charker made the point delicately. It was a shame that she didn't show the same delicacy in other things - there were far too many dull shots of people unloading their old mattresses, with ostentatiously quirky music standing in for genuine irony; an operatic aria accompanied film of gulls swooping on piles of rubbish. This was cheap. Still, "Treasures from the Tip" was far from being a waste of time.