Television Review

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THE WASHING basket is the window of the soul. That was the moral of Personal Services: Brief Encounters (C4), a cosy portrait of a South Shields launderette which goes by the faintly absurd name of Posh Wosh. David Leafe's film was docu-soap of a very literal kind, and, as with the best of the genre, it introduced us to a small group of strongly defined characters. There was Sandra Hewitt, the owner-manager, who leaned on an idle washer and breathed "This is my beautiful launderette. Can you not feel the serenity?" There was Ironing Betty, a woman of very few words, who - as her nickname implied - spent most of the day hidden in a miasma of steam, slamming creases into submission. And thirdly - and most telegenically - there was Old Betty, a fearsome old cuff-scrubber whom we first saw giving a bunch of mouthy schoolboys the verbal equivalent of a clip round the ear.

It was clear that Old Betty's curmudgeonly behaviour had caused problems in the past. In a voiceover, Sandra confessed that she'd once thought that her colleague was "a bit of a grouch". (At which point Leafe cut to a shot of Betty snarling into her teacup, as if attempting to turn the milk sour.) Magnificently ill-tempered and deliciously down-in-the- mouth, Old Betty's dim view of crumpled clothing and unnameable stains had the excoriating zeal of Victorian Calvinism. "Dirty bedding," she seethed, with a glowering look which could have felled a bull mastiff at 30 paces. "Stinking rotten. Some people are dirty. No need for it neither, because there's plenty of soap and water."

The other Posh Wosh ladies also revealed themselves as keen adherents to the theory that the contents of a man's washbag is a sure index of his moral rectitude. "If I asked about it, they'd probably tell me it was the dog," reflected Sandra, marshalling an armful of crusty whites into the drum. "Make of that what you will." Fortunately, Ms Hewitt and her two Betties also took pride in the fact that they were as familiar with the personal lives of their clients as they were with their less savoury emissions. Some of this intimacy was the result of the warm welcome which they gave to their regulars. For instance, they clearly adored Jimmy the bus driver who came to Posh Wosh more to pour out his troubles than to have his shirts pressed. Sandra approved of the virtue manifested in Jimmy's insistence on having his whites and colours washed separately, and Jimmy showed his appreciation by giving her a friendly toot whenever he drove by in his double decker.

The ladies were also very matey with widow Mavis Pollard, for whom the launderette had come to offer an important emotional support. Since the death of her husband, her weekly wash had become the only event in her social diary. She even spent her birthday on the premises, turning up in a cab and cracking open a bottle of sweet sherry as the ladies lathered her drawers. For these customers, Posh Wash was a social and spiritual service - a cross between a drop-in centre and the waiting room from Sartre's Huis clos.

However, it soon became clear that the ladies' close relationships with their clients also owed quite a lot to their incorrigible nosiness. Airing other people's dirty linen in public was clearly a favourite pastime. They were intrigued to frenzy point by the slinky satin undergarments they discovered while poking through a bin liner dropped in by a language student named Dolores. "You can be a bit of a detective sifting through people's washing," crowed Sandra. They weren't kept in suspense for too long. The Strange Case of the Student's G-String eventually yielded a solution. Dolores, they discovered, was a model. A glamour model. And she had the pictures to prove it. White faces all round, you might have thought. But even Old Betty didn't seem too scandalised by this revelation, and nobody protested when Dolores whipped out her portfolio of topless photos. "You might get a shock," she warned, as a laminated page fell open at a nudie shot of her dragging a length of gauze over her private parts. "Oooh, I like your hair," exclaimed Sandra, with genuine enthusiasm.

As long as you kept your bra nice and starched, it seemed, the Posh Wosh ladies didn't mind if you took it off for cash.