Last night's viewing - Protecting Our Children, BBC2; Whitechapel, ITV1

 

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Susanne has a shameful secret, something so bad that some of her relatives don't even like to admit it when they talk about her. She's a social worker – "the most hated profession in Britain", according to her. Protecting Our Children, a new documentary series about Bristol social workers, followed her progress with her first really awkward case and vividly demonstrated just how intractably difficult the job can be. The clients hate you, the public despise you and quite often you're just one temper tantrum away from being turned into a media monster, the person who failed a child at risk.

In Susanne's case, the child was Toby, a three-year-old who was already a year and a half behind in his development. Toby couldn't talk properly and was still in nappies, and when you saw his parents, Mike and Tiffany, you could understand how it might have been tricky for him to pick up either skill. The family lived in chaotic squalor, with dog dirt on the living-room floor and mess everywhere. Bruises had been found on Toby and – after more than one gentle reminder from Susanne – his parents still hadn't got round to buying him a bed. Tiffany was droopy and biddable, but Mike was belligerent and self-righteous. "You're out to wreck us," he snapped angrily at Susanne when she tried to coax him towards decency, oblivious to the fact that the deck was already below the waterline.

It was hard not to wonder why the reminders had to be so gentle and diplomatic. But then you remembered what Mike himself never lost sight of – that he had "rights", however clueless and indifferent he was as a father. "We have to illustrate that we've given a family every opportunity to understand and change," said Susanne's superior, asking her to hold off taking Toby into foster care. Social services bought a bed for him themselves, but several days later you saw that it was still leant up against the wall in its wrappings. Again and again, Mike and Tiffany were given a to-do list so elementary that even a seven-year-old could have coped. And nothing happened. Then Tiffany revealed that she was pregnant again.

Mike and Tiffany weren't monsters themselves, just hopelessly inadequate to the task of caring for a child who needed better than average parenting. In one scene, Mike had supervised access to his child so that his capacity to look after him could be assessed by a specialist. Other than "hello, mate", he barely appeared to say a word to him, staring bemusedly at the toys in the room as if they were pieces of alien technology. "There were parts of it that were positive," the expert summed up the meeting tactfully. Dark thoughts of eugenic intervention stirred in the murk and had to be effortfully suppressed.

In the end, both children were taken into care and Tiffany, a poor, unhappy, baffled woman gave them up for adoption, the tears coursing down her face. You felt the right decision had been taken – with professional care and consideration – but there was so much wrong with the outcome that it was impossible to feel jubilant. "Angels at Work: Prepare for Random Miracles" read a jokey sticker on the office wall. No, just decent human beings doing their best. Prepare for grim compromises and a really big lump in the throat.

Whitechapel is by some distance the silliest police drama I've seen for years – a confection of penny-dreadful gothic, jittery aesthetics and an utterly ludicrous premise, which is that a London DI uses a researcher to help him solve contemporary cases by looking at similar historical ones. The only conceivable way to watch it is as an unintentional comedy. Get the beers in, get your friends round and have a good laugh.

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