Television review

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The Independent Culture
The System (BBC2), Peter Dale's series about the vast machinery of welfare, is nothing if not chic; elegant sans serif titles, plumbline visual symmetries, melancholy compositions of urban landscape, all finished off with fine little details which tie the ensemble together. This is the documentary as haute couture and it is a relief to report that the high style is put to very good use. This week's film, about the unenviable labours of the Child Support Agency, was a touch more conventional than last week's remarkable opener, which beautifully introduced the engulfing nature of the subject with a film about Peter Lilley's first year in office. Titled, with provocative ambiguity, "The Nature of the Beast", it began with archive film of the new minister indulging the disgusting appetites of a Conservative Party conference ("the sight of these spongers descending like locusts") and concluded a year later with another feeding session, this time delivered by a man far more knowledgeable about the complexities - but no less happy to give the mob its simple truths. In a memorably cringe-making scene he laboured to hone one of those ponderous conference witticisms, a task as thankless as trying to put a cutting edge on a banana. In between, you were given an education in hopelessness and given it with great visual skill.

Dale's procedure appears straightforward - the machinery of welfare, whether it is a cheque printer or a well-attended conference table, is filmed with rigorous geometry, formal compositions that appear to have been checked with a spirit-level. By contrast the people that machinery is supposed to help are allowed to appear off- centre or awry, as if they were stray organisms that had got into the works.

If this was mere pattern-making you might be inclined to question some of its assumptions (isn't there something just as mechanical about the way in which some of the system's clients grind out their repetitious catastrophes?) But Dale also has an eye for details which peck away at complacent reactions - the industrial chatter of the cheque machine, pausing briefly in its cycle so you could read the figures, reminded you that every mercy had to be paid for, and that the cost frightens even the most merciful. Other devices are equally thoughtful - a long scene in which Lilley was suavely headlocked by a civil servant was edited with overlapping fades - as though he had briefly dropped off and then woken to find the meeting still lumbering on.

This week's programme looked at some of those entangled in the cogs of the CSA, and included an heirloom-quality piece of piece of doublespeak from Andrew Mitchell, social security minister. The CSA assessment formula (which resulted in more than half the original maintenance assessments being wrong) wasn't flawed at all, he said confidently. On the contrary, it was so good that they had had to make some adjustments to it. No amount of fine-tuning, though, is likely to reconcile the fathers, who find, to their boundless indignation, that casual sex might have lasting consequences for them as well - or indeed the mothers, who mistakenly assumed that the new procedures were in their interest, rather than that of the tax-payer. In an admirable breach of current convention The System lays these grievances before you without apportioning blame - it is a deposition of evidence, not a case for the prosecution and it is a marvellously watchable one.

I'm at a loss as to what The Hello Girls (BBC1) is for. Or who for that matter. Everyone in it is awfully nice, the music is fun and they haven't skimped on the budget for vintage vehicles. But why go to all that trouble and then pull your plots straight out of an old Bunty comic? Last week it was agonies about an amateur pop concert, this week japes with the boys in engineering. Perhaps it is intended as the purest recreation of Fifties' provincial life - a mood of stifling cosiness which has you longing for the Sixties to break.

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