TELEVISION / Up to their ears in it

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FOR THE first time ever, the Samaritans let television cameras into one of their branches to observe their work. The result, an Everyman programme called 'The End of the Line' (BBC 1, Sunday), was no run- of-the-mill do-gooder jaunt. There were no telegenic, conscience- pricking pictures of the poor or the oppressed, just a vastness of despair poured into sympathetic ears.

Roger, a hairdresser, stoically endured several calls of wordless sobbing. Richard, a primary school teacher, tried to calm an obviously distraught man driving at high speed up the M1. Dee, a hospital fundraiser, spoke of how she once heard a caller loading a shotgun, before the line went dead. It's a strange situation when a best-case scenario would be a crank call.

At one point, the volunteers congregated round a table for tea and biscuits and a chance to unload the stress built up by holding hands down the telephone line. They joked about feeling rejected when callers rang off as the Coronation Street theme music started up in the background, but talked of the importance of their position. 'It's a hell of an honour', said Richard, 'if someone wants to spend their last few hours talking to you.' The only slim reward came when someone rang back to tell Roger he'd put away the bottle of pills . . . A small victory that made it all worthwhile.

This was the kind of programme that made your blood boil at the crass manipulation of Tony Palmer's South Bank Show film on Henryk Gorecki, 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' (ITV, Sunday). The inspiration for Gorecki's sombre bestseller, the composer explained, was a school trip to Auschwitz. He recalled how he and his friends found it difficult to bring themselves to walk upon the camp's paths, which were made of human bones spread like shingle. Palmer seemed to have no such qualms about making Gorecki walk down them again for his camera, nor about larding his film with as much death-camp footage as he could find.

As the gloomy music played, we were treated to mountains of false teeth, false limbs, spectacles and human hair, skeletal corpses being flung into pits, and - Palmer presumably thinking laterally here - further distressing shots of starving African babies, seasoned with a dash of marching neo-Nazis. A cheap holiday in other peoples' misery, it patronised viewer and subject alike: the power of music lies in its ability to summon deep and sometimes dark emotions without the need to spell out their cause literally in words or pictures.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King's assassination, BBC 2 followed a repeat screening of John Freeman's 1961 Face To Face interview with an Assignment in which Charles Wheeler was dispatched to various black areas of the USA to ascertain 'The Legacy of Martin Luther King' (BBC 2, Saturday). Wheeler noted the absence of poor whites in the soup kitchens, a reflection of the breakdown of King's notion of an integrated 'brotherhood of the needy', while the former Black Power ideologue H Rap Brown derided the idea of black political power within the current system. One small glimmer of hope flickered in south-central Los Angeles where, in the wake of the riots, the leaders of the two main gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, had called a truce and were opening a store so that blacks could keep their money circulating in their own community. The fact that it was a sportswear shop spoke volumes: for most black Americans, the only routes out of the ghetto are still the same avenues of sports and entertainment.

Channel 4 chose to mark this sad anniversary with The Trial of James Earl Ray (C4, Sunday), in which King's convicted murderer received a kind of appeal in public. Made by the same producer (Jack Saltman) who conducted the Waldheim Enquiry, it stretched across nearly four hours, during which much was discussed but little revealed. In the end, there was enough evidence to suggest that, just possibly, the openly racist Ray may have been another dumb patsy, set up like Oswald to take the fall for a bit of under-the-counter political clean-up work. In which case, whatever the verdict, he got his just desserts.