TV review: How to Get a Council House, Channel 4

The Dealership, Channel 4

When I saw Channel 4's Thursday-night line-up, I assumed that its programmers were being provocative. The first part of a fly-on-the-wall series about used-car salesmen would be followed by the first of three documentaries on council housing, entitled How to Get a Council House. Wouldn't both shows simply give two demonised groups – the first a sort of cultural shorthand for dodginess and dishonesty, the second, those in need of social housing, being the poster children for Broken Britain and benefits culture – a good kicking? I was wrong.

Rather than being a guide to slipping through the loopholes of council accommodation, as its name suggests, for the sort of people whom certain newspapers (and certain politicians) would dub feckless, it instead showed people playing a hopeless numbers game that almost everyone was losing. The subject was the council and residents of east London's Tower Hamlets, one of the capital's poorest and most crowded boroughs.

Each week, there are 24,000 people hoping to get one of just 40 properties available. People such as Grant and Kimberly, who currently live in a room with no lockable door and no sheets on the beds because they have to wash them every day due to the building being infested with bed bugs. Kimberly is pregnant, and they've been on the waiting list for seven months, but there are 2,000 people in the same band as them who've "queued" (waited) much longer than they have to be housed.

You heard more about bands in How to Get a Council House than you would watching a rerun of Glastonbury. That was because they're one of the hopelessly imperfect ways councils use to decide who needs a property most urgently. It was amazing to hear Grant speak so calmly in the face of his dire odds of getting a place. It was also startling to learn of the council's policy to invite up to six families, each of whom will have had to bid along with hundreds – if not thousands – of other people to get a chance to see a property, to each viewing.

Tom, whose flat where he lives with his two young granddaughters is being demolished, apologised to the couple with an autistic son when he took the flat that they've all been invited to view. That everyone shown was so polite at these horrifically awkward meetings was a credit to everyone involved. On the other side of the paperwork wall, council staff, amid the mutters and wails of the housing queue or sitting in fluoro-lit council offices, endlessly explained the rules and policies that caused their "clients" to ask incredulously if they're joking. They weren't. There aren't a lot of laughs anywhere in the housing system, but neither is there any fecklessness in evidence.

With waiting lists of six years for a three-bedroom home and computer systems that baffle the people who have to depend on them, how you get a council house is a mixture of desperation and patience.

The clichés came thick and fast in The Dealership, which follows the salesmen of Essex Car Company. Used-car dealers? In Essex? With a geezer-ish voiceover and a manager who describes his staff in terms of motors ("At this stage in his career he's a Fiesta, a Clio. He needs to aspire to be a Mondeo… James is a Lamborghini")? It sounds like parody but is actually quite sweet, if a bit dull. The sales guys work their socks off – with plenty of wide-boy charm – there doesn't seem to be any sharp practices and everyone was nice to the work-experience kid who looked like Adrian Mole, making him over with some hair product and a few squirts of aftershave. Unfortunately, this didn't make for much drama, and with no villains to boo and hiss (The Call Centre, it ain't), I think I'd rather spend a day doing my own job than watching these chaps do theirs.

Twitter.com/rebeccaj

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