TELEVISION / Forty minutes is a long time in television

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The Independent Culture
IMAGINE you have discovered that your parents are not your parents at all, that 20 years ago, after some bureaucratic blunder, you were swapped for another child in the maternity hospital. Imagine too that you are standing outside a strange house on an unknown street in an unfamiliar town about to knock on a door which will be opened by a stranger, your real mother.

We can probably all fumble towards an approximation of the emotions we might feel on such an occasion, and some of us will imagine it with more detail and texture than others. But I doubt whether one in 10 million could come up with what actually went through the mind of Valerie Wheeler, whose story was told in 'Mixed Blessings', one of the 40 Minutes films recalled in last night's valedictory compilation.

As she went through the gate and heard the sneck click behind her, she froze, unable to continue. 'I felt it was a sound that I should have heard millions of times and I was hearing it for the first time.' This is the genius of ordinary life - the way in which a tiny sound can suddenly crystallise regret out of a saturated solution of illogical sorrow - and it was what 40 Minutes, at its best, was best at.

Last night's collection of clips was rather odd - a sort of selection box of human distress, offering both hard and soft centres; scenes that aroused your indignation or raised an awkward lump in the throat. The original billing promised films about 'issues, institutions and individuals,' but it was overwhelmingly the latter that they delivered, a succession of human stories transformed by patient attentiveness, so that an account of the vegetable love of leek growers might end up as rich, in its way, as a film about a woman attempting to discover her mother's fate in Nazi Germany. Paradoxically, the films you were reminded of here were the films you remembered anyway, the sort of films on which a series builds a reputation, and which act as a lure to like- minded directors. Which made it all the more bizarre that none of the directors concerned was given any credit. The editors of the programme over its 13 years certainly deserved theirs, but just how far would they have got on their own?

In Assignment (BBC 2), Tim Sebastian was heavy on doomy metaphors and light on hard facts. 'The insects - both animal and criminal - have taken over,' he said in his report on the hapless endeavours of the St Petersburg police to keep crime under control: 'This city speaks eloquently for Russia's Gadarene surge into chaos.' What you saw recently as fiction, in Grushko, was repeated here as real life - a city falling apart before your eyes, a citizenry struggling to survive by any means, moral certainties melting like ice.

What you couldn't tell, maddeningly, was how this compared to New York or London - whether Russia really is in freefall towards 'the first superpower gangster state' or just finding it hard to come to terms with one of the less pleasant consequences of political liberty. In the entire programme only one figure gave you a clue - on average, one policeman is killed every week, though even then you weren't told whether this was the figure for St Petersburg or for Russia as a whole.

The final part of Network First's 'The War against the Mafia', over on ITV, supplied some perspective on this enmired vision, a reminder that healthy democracies are no slouches at producing criminal societies integrated at every level with legal institutions. On this account, the Mafia effectively ran Atlantic City, choosing the mayor and the chief of police, and raking in money from everything that moved, from the casinos to the concrete mixers.

It was a story of a victory, the eventual conviction of John Gotti, head of the Gambino family and capo di tutti capi. Not a story that will give any cheer to the beleaguered St Petersburg police, though - Gotti went down to a combination of high-technology, manpower and the blood-weariness of his own men, and you can't even find those on the black-market in Russia.