Freefall, BBC2<br/>The Street, BBC1

Man's undoing in the mall of shame: Terrific acting invokes pity, even for an archetype, in the BBC's first recession drama &ndash; and Jimmy McGovern adds a twist to the tale
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The Independent Culture

Dave didn't even recognise his old school friend at first. But you knew right away that Jim – mall security guard, married, two children – was going to be one of his victims. It was already plain that Dave, played by Dominic Cooper, was ruthless in his exploitation of the financially vulnerable, because it was the first thing Dominic Savage, the writer of Freefall, told you about him, or about any of his lead characters.

And it was already plain that Jim, played by Joseph Mawle, was financially vulnerable, because who has an easy time on a mall security guard's wage? It's one of life's little ironies, that the people who police the palaces of consumption – Dave and his girlfriend had just exited a shop called Bling and Things – live a different kind of life to the life that is sold in them.

In Freefall, you already knew everything, because you already knew that this was the first big television drama of the present recession, and that everyone was going to go bust. Savage didn't complicate this fact by messing around with characters who were not archetypes. Even gender divisions were archetypal, with all the females in Freefall much more sensitive than all the males, as if no woman in the past 13 years ever bought a trophy handbag, or put up with a terrible husband because he was rich.

The great thing about this feature-length drama, thankfully not hacked into two parts, was that while we all understand that life is more complicated than this portrayal, it is also perfectly obvious that the current crisis was made by people, people marked out as socio-economic groups, and behaving, en masse, exactly as humans placed in such categories would typically behave. The dramatic simplicity of Savage's approach is therefore a perfect armature on which to mould character. Freefall is all about men, and their tragic weaknesses. You feel pity for them all in the end, even Dave.

It would be easy to pick little holes in Freefall, and easy to mock its simplicity. But its tiny flaws are only so visible because so much of it is perfect. The dialogue is impeccable, the acting wonderful, the camerawork restrained and the settings subtle. There are no lingering shots of Barcelona chairs in the flash offices ruled by Aidan Gillen's empty, compelling Gus. There are no winsome alightings on kiddie paintings on the kitchen walls of Anna Maxwell Martin's hesitant, hopeful Mandy. There are just people dragged along by other people, for whom money is too important and loved ones not important enough.

For an hour and a half one watches the inevitable unfold, but tensely, and with nothing but sorrow for the folly of it all. Freefall is a brilliant dramatic valediction to a short pathological era.

It might be considered quite an amazingly happy coincidence that Freefall was broadcast just as some of the dramatists who work with the BBC are going through one of their regular convulsions of frustration and sniping, with drama king Tony Garnett leading a savage charge against falling standards and stifling bureaucracy.

Freefall is certainly a counter-claim in itself against some of that criticism. But there was a double whammy in that department last week, with the BBC screening the third series of Jimmy McGovern's The Street, just as he announced that due to the closure of ITV's Manchester drama unit, there would be no more of it. Clearly creativity is stifled every bit as effectively in the independent sector, if not more so, since the commercial channels showed little interest at all in screening a soap opera so complex and involving.

Monday's opening episode focused on Paddy Gargan – played by national treasure Bob Hoskins – whose life as a publican became quietly heroic as he stood up to a local gangster, Jim Miller, who combined the violent terrorisation of his community with lavish philanthropy towards it. Virtually none of the people who had thronged Paddy's bar over the years were willing to stand by him.

But the interesting psychological twist was that Paddy came to understand that they had reasons for withholding their support that were every bit as moral – and trickily tortuous – as his own. Paddy argued that his pub was the hub of the street. He kept the young people safe, while Miller introduced them to drugs and crime. The unofficial spokesman for the backsliders retorted: "It's ale." He felt that a community hub that existed to make profits from drunks was not one that could accommodate a pulpit. It's a powerful, subversive point about television drama, and it was beautifully made.