Television Review

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After I reviewed Staying Lost (C4) three weeks ago, a reader who works nights in a hostel in King's Cross wrote to scold me for my scepticism, suggesting that the reason I had a problem with the series was that I couldn't bear to believe it.

Nobody likes to be called chicken; so, teeth gritted, last night it was back to watch the final episode. This film followed several children, the youngest of whom was 14, who live in the West End of London - sleeping in doorways or subways, smoking crack, begging, "clipping" (a term which a caption helpfully explained as: "pretending to be a prostitute, demanding the money up front, and then running away with the cash"). There was some talk of young people actually selling their bodies for sex, but this was something the programme steered clear of. Two old hands talked about their experience of living rough: Lorraine was 21, and had been on the streets for seven years; Jim was 26 and had been homeless for 12 years. They spoke about loneliness, a sense of being cut off, of having no one to trust or confide in; of how young people pretend to be happy, but inside they're sad. You didn't need to be told that last one, not after seeing Shorty, a 15-year-old working hard to be a shiny happy person, cheeking passers-by, bragging about the amount of crack she smoked.

I found this more painful to watch than the first programme; but it still left me mostly cold, and I really don't think this was because the facts it depicted were unbearable. What jarred in Pamela Gordon and Tom Roberts' series was the stylistic strain, the flashy filming and editing, the clubby soundtrack, the attitudes struck by the solemn opening poem: "Sick - illness - coughing - gasping - heaving - hurting - limping - lurching - can't think - can't sleep - can't walk - needles - knives - never mind - we're only kids." It feels too much like a showcase for directorial talent to strike any emotional chords.

Compare this with The Cops (BBC2), one of the three or four unmissables on television at the moment. The situations facing the all too plausibly fallible coppers aren't so far from those in Staying Lost - this week, they dealt with the aftermath of the death of Debbie Sharpe, a teenage junkie. But where Staying Lost added glitz and sheen to reality, Tony Garnett's series, with its choppy cameras and shoddy lighting, fights to strip away the gloss from fiction, to give it all the indeterminacy and mess, the occasional descent into the cliche of real life. What it also does is to put individual stories into a social context, and gets some measure of the everyday glumness that gives rise to the sensational stories. It helps that the acting is mostly wonderful - John Henshaw as Roy, the archetypal fat, cynical bobby; Rob Dixon as the earnestly pained, compromised Sergeant Giffen.

The studied artlessness of The Cops strikes home: it can make you feel more uncomfortable about the society we live in than any number of smartly packaged documentaries. Perhaps, with a programme like Staying Lost, I should learn to look beneath the slick surface. But if the directors were really concerned with conveying the truth, surely I wouldn't have to try so hard?