If you were to compare today's television schedules to those from 30 years ago, one shift in the landscape would be blazingly conspicuous.
Where have all the earnest documentaries gone, a time traveller might ask, utterly baffled. Where's all the public-service remit stuff about foreign countries and social issues? And one answer would be that a quite surprising amount of it is still out there, hiding in plain sight. Take last night, for instance, which – alongside Lark Rise to Candleford, Dancing on Ice and Top Gear – featured a film about corruption and violence in Guatemala City, and an investigation into the intricacies of food retailing. Naturally, both had been heavily camouflaged so as not to spook the audiences they were hoping to attract, so notoriously skittish about current affairs and social policy. And the main component of the camouflage was the narrative of personal challenge. In Toughest Place to Be a Paramedic, Angie from Cardiff was taking a short break from catching the vomit of Friday night drunks in Wales, to work with Guatemala City's bomberos. And in The People's Supermarket, Arthur Potts Dawson was continuing his attempt to bring a bit of co-operative utopianism to the cut-throat world of the daily shop.
Arthur isn't having an easy time of it, despite the bright eagerness of some of his volunteers, all of whom have paid £25 to join up, as well as pledging their free labour. Last night, Jocelyn, a trained goldsmith turned up to do her stint. "I'm extremely excited," she said, "I'm coming in to stack a shelf!" One can't help feeling this thrill won't last, which may be a mercy for the business, given that she approached the task of putting out cans of kidney beans as if she was setting five-caret diamonds. The much bigger problem, though, concerned class. Though the enterprise is aimed at everybody, and planted in a socially mixed area of London, Arthur's stock, and his membership, is overwhelmingly chattering classes. This hadn't escaped the attention of Josie, a formidable grandma from the local council estate. "It's too upmarket, it's too up your backside," she growled, "peas in their pods!" There's always an obligatory dark-night-of-the-soul moment in these things when the choir-master/mentor/first-time entrepreneur despairs of ever reaching the goal, but Arthur's low looked absolutely genuine.
He cheered up briefly after a publicity drive, combating the £105m or so Tesco spends on advertising every year with a bit of guerrilla fly-posting. He and two friends glued a trail of bright yellow arrows from the doors of his big rivals leading to his front door and then threw an open day, which raised just enough money to keep the bailiffs from the door and the organic cauliflowers on the racks. Unfortunately, a couple of days later the local environmental officers turned up and threatened Arthur with a £2,500 fine for every arrow, so that he had to spend time he didn't have on scraping them off the pavement again. Struggling with falling sales and faltering commitment, Arthur called a meeting of the members, which exposed the yawning gulf between all those worried about food miles and organic produce and the ordinary locals who want to be able to buy cheap oven chips. "There's nobody at this meeting that doesn't speak with a potato in their mouth," Josie said indignantly. Up till that point it would have been an organic, heritage-strain potato to boot, but there were signs by the end that Arthur was beginning to think of the People's Supermarket as a supermarket for ordinary people, not just a campaigning platform.
Toughest Place to Be a Paramedic was the first of a three-part series, which takes British public-service workers and gets them to do their job in a developing country. First up was Angie, a winningly cheerful paramedic who works in Cardiff, usually with another female colleague. "Together they call us the Mumbulance," she explained, "because we like to mother people." There wasn't much call for a Mumbulance in Guatemala City, where paramedics have to wear bullet-proof jackets and it isn't wise to spend too much time on the street giving your patients a comforting little cuddle. Angie, billeted in an emergency station that was ominously located between two funeral parlours, began on the night shift. "Are we likely to see shootings and stabbings tonight?" she asked hesitantly. "Yes," replied her guide in a tone of faint incredulity, much as if you were to ask a Welsh paramedic whether you might encounter a drunk on a Friday night in Cardiff. Before long, Angie was standing over her first corpse – a man who'd been pulled off a local bus and executed in the street.
It was – literally – ambulance-chasing television, but as well as the flashing-light stuff, Angie explored the off-duty lives of her counterparts, some of whom lived in heavily guarded compounds so that they could take a few hours off from fearing for their lives, while others had to play Russian roulette everyday by commuting in on the city's buses, a favoured target for gangs looking to extort protection money. She also attempted to visit a gang rehabilitation project in one of the city's tougher neighbourhoods, though tellingly that had to be abandoned halfway through because of the menacing presence of some stubbornly unrehabilitated gang members. Angie, incidentally, coped astonishingly well with her transfer to something like a war zone and even confessed that she could see why so many bomberos are volunteers. "It is very, very exciting," she said. My guess is that this thrill would fade also.