TELEVISION : Talk shows for the chattering classes

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ACCORDING to the news papers, this, the balmy time when politics shuts up shop, is the silly season. In truth, it is hard to believe anything could be sillier than the spectacle of all those stripy-blazered parliamentarians seriously thinking of John Redwood as the answer to the nation's prayers. But true to form, the papers have dropped pretty much everything in favour of Grant-Hurley, and it has been left to the BBC to chew over the more solemn issues of the day. It has picked up the gauntlet with relish. If nothing else, it was a busy week for the chattering classes.

Jeremy Paxman's new discussion-fest, You Decide (BBC1) was a determined attempt to hold a sensible political conversation without politicians, and a risky dip in the turbulent waters of public opinion. Viewers were asked: "Was Britain's top policeman right to say that very many of London's muggers are black?" Amazingly, 92 per cent of the sample said that he was. There followed a spirited debate in which the arguments against were crisply displayed, and then the public was invited to vote again. This time, only 65 per cent thought Sir Paul Condon was right.

It was a revealing exercise in the power of a televised argument to change people's minds, though what it says about those minds is less clear. Was it a tribute to the great British public's willingness to be swayed by debate, or a dismaying sign that almost everyone is happy to harbour emphatic ideas on subjects they know nothing about? I don't know - you decide. Perhaps viewers were shocked to learn that mugging - the so-called dark spectre that haunts our cities, represented only 2 per cent of recorded crime. Either way, it was alarming. You could imagine people all over Britain banging the table in exasperation over the pernicious crime rate in the so-called "black community", without stirring themselves to inspect the evidence. It is a basic democratic right, in these opinion-mad times, to hold strong views without checking the facts.

Paxman himself cleared away the fog with brisk decorum. He didn't seem to mind being made to stroll around on what looked like the dance floor of a disco, and he kept a straight face during the idiotic fanfares - the producers seemed eager to turn the debate into a game show. "Here is the 'YES' envelope," Paxman said, holding it up as if poised to announce the winner of a Bafta award. He even had to ask a chief constable to "come on down". There were no cuddly prizes on offer, though. The poor man just had to sit there trying not to look embarrassed while the incautious words of Sir Paul were ridiculed in front of his lowered eyes.

Hypotheticals (BBC2) took an even cooler look behind the headlines. The format is perfect: part courtroom-drama, part soap-opera, and part documentary; all handled with the just the right mixture of zip and subtlety. Three moderators led teams of experts through sharp moral melodramas, quizzing the panel as they went. Helena Kennedy embarrassed her guests by obliging them to do next to nothing while a baby was beaten and killed by his parents. When asked what they would do, most of them (doctors, social workers, probation officers, lawyers, etc) said, in effect: phone someone else. Vincent Hanna made them all squirm through a convoluted saga involving schoolchildren, sexual abuse and secret abortions. And Professor Arthur Miller ran rings round the carers struggling to help a cantankerous pair of octogenarians. It emerged that, while it is possible for the social services to spend pounds 750 a week "monitoring" a dotty old man in his home, it is out of the question (partly because of the fear of tabloid venom) for them to sneak him a whisky to cheer him up in the first place.

The beauty of the format is that it is faction of a high and honourable kind: the dramatising vitality of fiction enlivens the exploration of vexed issues. The experts become actors in an authentic kind of interactive story- telling, so it was a shame that some of the participants refused to play ball. The programmes oozed careful preparation, and foundered only when the invited experts failed to improvise, muttering about what they "would" do, rather than acting it out. As a result, they tended to talk about co-ordinating with other agencies and providing support structures, when all they had to do was make a cup of tea and buy some Jif.

Still, it was gripping stuff. For some reason, the chattering classes are usually satirised as over- educated layabouts who while away their expensive time wagging tongues while Rome burns. Here, though, they could be seen for what they are: eager and well- intentioned men and women trying like hell to help people who refuse to help themselves, and hampered at almost every turn by necessary but intractable regulations. They made an easy target. Ann Leslie, of the Daily Mail, was especially sarcastic about the do-nothings who organised "strategy meetings" while a baby was being throttled in the room next door, and it was a nice cute pose to strike. But everyone knew that Leslie would be the first to scream blue murder if a social worker had the gall to defend a child against its parents without a stack of evidence. Television is often accused of simplifying issues. How nice to see it making them as thorny (and true) as possible.

It might seem odd scheduling to launch these sober debates into the hot, post-Wimbledon daze, but that's broadcasting for you. Anyway, there was a different take on old age in Ruby Wax's Health Quest (BBC1), a skittish, on-the-run look at modern medical fads. Ruby's first jaunt took her to a posh Swiss clinic, where enriched extract of foetal sheep is injected into rich people's buttocks in an attempt to prolong their youth. Ruby chased a flock of woolly elixir around a field, and then lay towelled on a couch twitting a fellow patient about her breast implants. Later, she sat in on a heart operation. Even she found it hard to make light of a saw zizzing through a sternum; nor could she quite think of a sassy response to the line "We've just opened the pericardium". She could have said: "Thanks, I'll have it with ice and lemon, please." But there was a fair bit of blood around just then, and the moment passed. She was her usual waggish self, though, with a too-good-to-be-true lady called Rose Sage, who is 101 and still chops her own wood. You wouldn't guess, from the incessant impishness of Wax's TV persona, that her weekends are spent trudging the neighbourhood in search of the right shade of yellow for her house. It wasn't mentioned in the film, but ... autumn citrus or butternut ochre? I don't know - you decide.