TELEVISION / Snakes and yet more snakes: Thomas Sutcliffe on the perils of DIY enterprise and DIY justice

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The Independent Culture
CHECK the following sentence for internal contradictions: 'Anybody can do it . . . and earn really, really good money'. If you just can't put your finger on the problem you are probably ready for a career at the lower levels of pyramid selling - or multi-level marketing, as its converts like to call it. The pitch came from a woman with big shoulder pads and big hair and it was aimed at Clive Busby and Nick Clark, whose fitted kitchen business had recently failed.

In the first of a series of films charting the snakes and ladders world of Britain in recession, Present Imperfect (BBC 2), Peter Gordon followed the attempts of both men to earn their way out of trouble. The result, 'Broke', was both a dull and engrossing film, one in which a drive down a rainy bypass qualified as visual excitement but in which the interest mounted as steadily as that on Clive and Nick's overdraft.

The heady thrill of launching a business - caught in a wobbly home video - had given way to failure and retreat by the time the filming started. The office was piled with redundant stock, the leaves on the office pot plant had turned brown and the answering machine was back in its box. Even so Clive's optimism seemed undented. He spoke with the fragile clarity of someone desperate to persuade himself that everything was under control. When he closed the office and moved the remnants of the business into his bedroom you might even have got the impression that things were looking up. 'It'll be a smooth little operation' he said crisply.

Only the look on his face - that combination of concentration and nausea you see when someone is trying not to be sick - told you how bad things really were. It was on a lot of faces in this film - on all those confident talkers in the pyramid-selling seminars who needed to sell on their desperation to those below them, on Clive's partner Nick (resisting bankruptcy to the last) and on the kitchen fitter with whom Clive eventually ends up, living from job to job. Even here the optimism hadn't quite worn through, though it was looking decidedly threadbare; 'It's quite good because I'm seeing different parts of the country', Clive said brightly about the casual work, ' . . . Welwyn Garden City, Stevenage, Hackney'.

You watched knowing that this determination was unlikely to be rewarded, and increasingly conscious that it might even be part of the problem. Sat at the kitchen table, executing credit-cards with the kitchen scissors, Clive charged the credit boom with all his woes; they had offered him too much so 'it's not really my fault'. More convincingly, perhaps, 'this government' got it in the neck too. Though Gordon's film didn't nudge you too heavily you couldn't help noticing that Clive and Nick were photo-fits of Mrs Thatcher's ideal citizen - small businessmen, first time share-buyers, dedicated to doing it for themselves. They bought the line and then the pyramid collapsed.

It seems, though, that the principles of self-sufficiency and freedom from the state live on in one respect at least. This Week's report (ITV) on the growth of vigilanteism suggested that increasing numbers of people feel that the nanny state doesn't do enough smacking. Barbara Mills, the current Director of Public Prosecutions, took a very dim view of this element of private enterprise and quite rightly too - justice shouldn't be administered with battery acid and a ball hammer. But you couldn't help feeling that her argument that rough justice often gets it wrong sounded a little hollow coming from a representative of the system that has had to spend most of its time recently apologising to its victims.

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