Last Night's Television - Michaela's Road Trip, FIVE; The Trouble With Girls, BBC2

Not that innocent
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The Independent Culture

There is a certain singer-songwriter whose relentlessly downbeat output we in our house describe as "music to slit your wrists to", and The Trouble with Girls was the televisual equivalent. Jo Hughes's brilliant but utterly dispiriting documentary followed the alcohol-sodden, crime-ridden lives of 17-year-old Abbie and 20-year-old Shona, both from Yorkshire, both with likeable qualities, both seemingly condemned to lives in and out of prison. Every time their respective futures were illuminated with faint rays of hope, as when Shona resolved to find herself a job, or when Abbie got the opportunity to start a new life in Sheffield, away from her native York, where she is known as an irredeemably bad lot, cloud quickly obliterated the sun. Hughes seemed fond of her two subjects, but I wonder whether she dares revisit them five years from now. They appear to inhabit a world without happy endings.

To an extent, their problems are self-induced. But to at least an equal extent, their predicaments shame us all. Society has failed them and people like them, effectively addressing its own inadequacies by imposing curfews and dishing out prison sentences. Yet what other solutions are there? Shona's rap sheet is longer than your arm, and includes assault, theft and deception. In Doncaster, she and her friend Jodie go shoplifting to order, although Shona acknowledged admiringly that Jodie is better at it, expressing pride mixed with envy rather as a decent young violinist might nod to her friend's superior technique. In a good week, Jodie can make £800, which is duly spent on "drugs, beer, fags, food", doubtless in that order. Shona invoked the standard shoplifter's morality to justify their stealing sprees – the stores can afford it, they're robbing bastards themselves, they're insured etc – but at the same time seemed keen to emphasise that shoplifting is beneath her. She's capable of bigger, better crimes than that, although "I don't think I've got the guts to kill anyone". Oh, and "I'd never rob an old lady".

Hughes listened to all this without passing judgement, but also without offering any guidance herself – or not that we were privy to – on how these girls might seek proper rehabilitation. That wasn't her job, of course, just as it's not the job of a war photographer to set his camera aside to help the wounded. But it was vaguely troubling, all the same, to realise that Shona and Abbie had come into such close contact with the middle-class, educated, liberal, Chiswick-dwelling beast that is a BBC film crew, yielding an hour of engrossing television for the rest of us (with another hour to come next week about three 16-year-olds from Rochdale), but not much for them.

On the other hand, if this programme draws proper attention to the alarming statistic that since 2003 there has been a 40 per cent increase in crimes committed by girls and young women, and inspires efforts to do something about it, then Shona and Abbie will have a reward less tangible than a morning's worth of thieving but infinitely more valuable. They were well-chosen subjects, actually, because hand in stolen glove with their anti-social and self-destructive impulses were some manifest virtues and talents, not least, in Shona's case, a facility for writing primitive but stirringly evocative poetry: "I sit in my cell thinking why, why, why/ get on with it, rude girl, and don't fucking cry." Not quite sufficient to make Carol Ann Duffy look to her laurels, but powerful, nevertheless.

As for Abbie, a bright, attractive girl lurked beneath the blotchy skin and inexpertly tattooed neck, and you yearned for her to find a way of reversing her downward spiral. Her father yearned for it too, and he seemed a decent bloke, if with muddled ideas about parenting: "I haven't got clear boundaries," he mused, "so how can I set them for Abbie?" Happily, the programme ended with him and Abbie hugging and another faint ray of hope illuminating her path forward – a magistrate having dismissed outstanding charges against her just when she felt certain of another prison term – but it didn't seem like happiness worth investing in, somehow.

Of course, if Abbie was a duck-billed platypus with behavioural problems, and Shona a warthog with post-natal depression, there would be no end of folk rallying around. Michaela's Road Trip is a series looking at the attention lavished on animals around Britain, and while it was no fault of the pleasantly chirpy Michaela Strachan, I couldn't help contrasting the time, expertise and expense lavished on a pregnant rhino at Colchester Zoo with the somewhat lacklustre councillors and probation officers deployed to help Shona and Abbie.

"Over at the rhino enclosure, the zoo's breeding programme is at a critical point," said Strachan, tearing herself away from the story of the arthritic meerkat about to be rehoused. She then asked a keeper, who was training baby crocodiles, whether all creatures are biddable? "Even things like bugs, you could probably train but when you pick a bug up and have a look at it, there's not a right lot of point doing it," he said. For his view of bugs, read society's view of some human beings.