TELEVISION / Doing time with Cape Town's Krays

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The Independent Culture
BELOVED Country (BBC 2) is busy besmirching the good name of the National Geographic Society, and not before time if you ask me. It used to be the case that if you saw that name in the production credit was because you had just endured an anodyne wildlife film or a coffee-table travelogue about somebody who wants to bungee-jump off the Victoria Falls. Not this time. Beloved Country is unblinkingly nasty when it needs to be; anyone given to simplistic statements about the future of South Africa should be made to sit down and watch all three of the episodes that have been transmitted so far.

One of the principal virtues of the films is their patience. They resist the hit-and-run method of much documentary filming, returning over the period of a year to build a picture of their subjects which is then structured chronologically. There are some risks here - television craves novelty and narrative progression but the truth of most people's private lives is that one month is much like another. Signalling the passage of the months reminds you of that fact and, just occasionally, can make the films seem overlong. 'We've seen that already,' you think. 'He was saying the same thing in January.'

On the other hand, public life in South Africa is changing every day and the subject of the series is the way the two are inseparable, the way in which public events insinuate themselves into private pleasures or ambitions. Here the formal structure of the films can throw up fruitful repetitions. The assassination of Chris Hani, for example, was central both to the film about a black ballroom dancer living in Soweto and to last week's programme, about a prosperous rural farmer trying to desegregate his beloved rugby club.

The rugby film was a gem, incidentally - richly ambiguous in its portrayal of a white conservative's stumbling attempts at communication and illuminating about the extent of the gap that has to be closed. Last night's film was almost as good, a startling account of gang warfare on the Coloured council estate of Manenberg. Rashied and Rashad are Cape Town's equivalent of the Kray brothers, fighting turf wars, bribing policemen and administering rough justice to anyone unlucky enough to cross their path.

'Some want to rape him, some want to burn his tattoos off. They want to sodomise him and I don't think it's a good idea,' said Rashied of a rival gang-member who had been kidnapped and was being interrogated, grey with fear. Later, a gang-member accused of molesting his sister was beaten in front of the cameras, screeching in terror as his arm was broken. The law rarely interrupts this calendar of brutality. For a time it looked as if Rashad might end up in jail for dealing in Mandrax tablets but when the cameras returned a little later he was still there, and all his lieutenants had better cars. Rashied was in trouble too, for murdering a man, but seemed unperturbed about his prospects - 'I shall kill the witness too,' he said, chuckling a little. The ANC, God help it, is just beginning to come to terms with the fact that this urban wildlife will be its responsibility after the elections.

After the unveiling of Honey for Tea and Men of the World it's a relief to report that Outside Edge (ITV) is funny, beautifully acted and graceful in its comedy. There's something awful about being begged for a laugh by a sitcom - they're often in such desperate plight that one doesn't like to refuse, but do they really deserve it? Outside Edge is quite different - no frantic plotting, no laugh-track, none of those posturing performances that tug pleadingly at your funny bone.

Brenda Blethyn plays Miriam, a put-upon cricket widow being coaxed towards insurrection by Josie Lawrence's earthy Maggie. Her own relationship with the ghastly Roger consists of fake affection and genuine rancour; that of Maggie and Kevin (Timothy Spall), on the other hand, is one of fake rancour and genuine passion. Roger Harris's adaptation of his own stage play leaves the laughter up to you and as a result you give generously.