Last Night's TV - The Street That Cut Everything, BBC1; Gordon's Great Escape, Channel 4

There is such a thing as society

The council is such a faceless, nebulous body to most of us. We don't really know who runs it, and we don't really know what it does with our money. Strange to think, then, that it's the only kind of government we have that comes anywhere near to the sort of small-scale, instinctive community work that humans have done since the first of us stood up straight, the most direct and generous kind of politics there is. "Council", from Latin roots meaning "call together"; there was, presumably, a moment when the earliest cave-dwellers twigged that their best chance of repelling predators would be to team up and work out a guard rota. The local authority is just an extrapolation of the same thing, but with forms.

In The Street That Cut Everything, Nick Robinson took a break from political editing to task an intrepid group of neighbours from Preston with returning to something like that ancient model. Denied any access to council services (barring schools and emergency services) for six weeks and refunded the corresponding tax in return, they would have to make their own decisions about how to spend their budget, and, indeed, about whether to put their money into the pot at all. With the cuts just about to bite across the country – in Preston, the central government's £21m grant is coming down to £10.5m – and the Big Society endlessly posited as a remedy for the shortfall, it was a beautifully timed and totally intriguing proposition: could we really cope without the services that the government is taking away?

The group's efforts to find out were, of course, not exactly an academic exercise. Throughout the programme, they were heavily coloured by exactly the kind of personal grudges and politicking that one assumes dominate policy at all levels of government. From the very beginning, as the group tried to figure out how to proceed, a few people plainly fancied themselves as the right person to take charge, without quite having the nerve to say so, which was terribly inefficient. Drama teacher Janette and nursery manager Maria quickly emerged as major antagonists, and when the question arose of how much money to give single mother Tracie, who relied heavily on council benefits to support her family, the whole thing started to feel a bit nasty.

As the rows over spending priorities escalated – Janette's disabled dad needed help, too, and even getting rid of a derelict fridge cost £15 – one deeply unpleasant man suggested that Tracie should just have fewer children. Some of the meetings made me think of nothing so much as Lord of the Flies. You can insist on passing a conch around, sure, but there will always be people who see the weakest among us as a threat to the stability of the group.

So that's one lesson from the project: we need a council partly to depersonalise the very difficult process of the better-off giving something to the needy. The other obvious point is the sheer range of public services that we take for granted, from street-lighting to dog-muck-removing. This stuff is intricate, and mundane, and endless, and difficult. There is a slight cheat in the conceit, of course, in that no council will really cut everything. The point the programme makes is, nonetheless, salutary. It's the first piece of popular television I've seen that grapples effectively with how such deep cuts will really play out.

There is, at least, one piece of good news. When that nasty old git basically suggested that Tracie should have kept her legs shut, he was alone. Everyone else in the room voted to give her the money she needed. And away from the soap operatics of those jostling for the leadership, there were a lot of people being quietly kind in the background. Tracey, Sonia, Carol, and John, who thought nothing of disrupting their routines to provide a lifeline to their elderly neighbour Pam; or Tina, who sensibly reflected, when others fussed about those who were taking too much from the pot, that "There are points in your life when you use more services and you probably get very good value for money, and there's points in your life when you probably don't, and that's the way it is."

Tina was not the only resident to come away from the experience with a far clearer sense of just how crucial her council was. I can't believe there will be many viewers not left with the same chastening – and yet strangely moving – sense that this extraordinary collective enterprise, this method of mutual care that society has built up over centuries, underpins everything we do.

Anyone looking for an austerity menu could have done worse than watch Gordon's Great Escape, in which the craggy-faced masterchef headed to Vietnam in search of tips on a cuisine far removed from its manifestations on dodgy takeaway menus in the UK. The literal nose-to-tail eating he encountered made for riveting viewing even for a non-foodie. I was left cold by the rice cooking, but had to hit rewind on my preview DVD to see our macho guide blanch at the snake-heart shot he was confronted with in Ho Chi Minh city. Cheery as the whole thing was, Ramsay did come across a little patronising in his repetitive, blanket praise of a cuisine he didn't really seem to know very much about. Heartening, then, to see him try to cook for his guides at the end of the programme – and be met with only the faintest of praise for his efforts.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect