Last Night's Viewing: Brain Doctors, BBC2 People Like Us, BBC3


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The Independent Culture

"It can be a bit like walking on a tightrope in very high winds," said a young neurosurgeon in Brain Doctors. "You could fall off and die." Er, well, due respect and all, but no, actually. What happens is that you fall off and somebody else dies. Which doesn't mean that brain surgeons don't get bruised when they slip.

One of the themes of this film, the first of three about the neurology wards at John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, was the emotional cost the work can inflict when it doesn't go well. "Some days it just gets to you," said a tearful female surgeon, "when you've told five families that their relative is not going to survive." A younger colleague put the unpredictable highs and lows of the job in a different way: "It's a bit like being a manic depressive, I think."

If that's true we mostly caught Jay Jayamohan in an up mood. He has a reputation for grumpiness, he confessed, but it wasn't very often apparent here, as bone-dust flew and he burrowed cheerfully into another patient's cranium to stave off mortality for a little longer. He wasn't even very grumpy when he was called in in the middle of the night to perform emergency surgery on a teenager with gross hydrocephalus. "This is one of my favourite operations," he said, as he probed hazardously close to the fornix, the seat of our memories, "I absolutely love them." Happily, he didn't slip, and the pathos of lives irreversibly altered – which sits under this film like a sustained drone note – was sweetened by a recovery.

Simple empathy drives a programme like Brain Doctors. I don't suppose you'd even start watching unless you felt a projected sympathy for those on screen, since there's limited visual appeal in chasing people in surgical scrubs down hospital corridors. We think "that could be us" as we look at patient or fretful relative, and by thinking that we have enough invested to care about what happens next. But with a programme such as People Like Us, I suspect the empathy is an end product rather than a necessary condition. The reflexive thought this observational documentary about a poor suburb of Manchester will most likely prompt in most viewers is a superior one – "that could never be me." And then it unfussily dismantles the barrier that sets up.

Essentially, it's "Shameless: the Documentary", an account of frayed lives at the bottom of the heap that isn't much interested in judgement or condemnation. It's interested in life, which exists here in varieties not always allowed for in a conservative vision of respectability. The locals know that their neighbourhood is a byword for rough, but they don't seem unduly worried about it. "We call ourselves the dysfunctionals," said one woman, in the smoke-cured rasp that seems endemic to the area. "I've never known a place with so many village idiots," added her husband. In truth, this family was anything but dysfunctional, having provided a place of refuge for a young girl whose mother was in and out of jail because of drugs.

It wasn't a worthy or dour film. I think even Paul Abbott would have been proud of a character called Jamie, a lardy jack-the-lad who threatened to turn up to his wedding in a top hat and mankini, but eventually spared his bride- to-be by dumping her ("You'll probably find someone better... or vice versa, you know what I mean," he said tactfully when he delivered the bad news). But it was also touching about how much virtue can be found if you look past the mess, whether it was the courage of the gay newsagent, putting on a drag night at a local pub, or the charity of Nicki, a 52-year-old woman trying to coax her 25-year-old partner to break his addiction to white cider. Funny, humane and unexpected.