TELEVISION / Perverted charity and nature's dupes

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The Independent Culture

Thomas Sutcliffe

Dear me, it was a louring night last night, an arid stretch of human brutishness with barely an oasis of charity. In fact, by the time World in Action and Undercover Britain were finished you could reasonably turn to Mad Max for some light relief, for its dim glow of grudging altruism. (Come to think of it, why do people need dystopias anyway, when you can feel bad for free, right here and now?) Both documentaries were essentially about cunning, about the mazy, lab-rat persistence of vice, though the two films had very different weights of villainy to them.

World in Action (ITV) was by far the heavier, an account of how British paedophiles had volunteered for charity work in Romania in order to gain access to young children. Perhaps this is what you find in paedophile contact magazines - a consumer guide to world misery, with star ratings for countries in which poverty and social collapse have left the door ajar for the midnight visit. And though World in Action couldn't exactly make a case for a plague, a Biblical visitation of abusers, it had found three, which seemed quite enough to be going on with. More than one changes the stakes, anyway. It's relatively easy to imagine such tastes as a furtive matter, an inner compulsion concealed from the world, but the notion of people getting together over coffee and biscuits to exchange helpful hints is a bit more difficult.

Two of the men named in the programme, Bernard Lynn and Graham Sampson, are now in prison, doing time for offences against boys in the UK. Another, chased through a Grimsby market in one of those we-chase-the-guilty-man interviews, is not. The implication of the programme, and its call for government action, is that these aren't isolated cases, that there are more who see that sad, terminally abused country as a land of opportunity. At which point the programme tied itself into an intractable knot. "The danger is," it warned, "that what Lynn and Sampson have done will cast a shadow over the charity work still being done." A danger not exactly alleviated by World in Action, coming up behind them with a huge spotlight. One doubts whether the Romanians can afford the luxury of cynicism anyway, so maybe we should include some in the next aid package, in the form of a decent vetting system for volunteers.

Undercover Britain (C4), in which Sue Hutchinson secretly filmed taxi touts, was more picaresque, even comic, depending on how much sympathy you could muster for tourists prepared to pay £48.50 for a five-minute taxi-ride (as one of nature's dupes I could muster quite a lot myself).

I thought of Mayhew for a while, with his meticulous anatomy of urban scams, but then a contemporary writer came to mind. As the video watched a huddle of crooks from its hide, it looked like Martin Amis might be down there somewhere, doing a casting call for his next novel among the city's dandruff of butts and burger bumf. My money is on Donut, who did a storming audition as a tout's runner. A hyena in a shell-suit, it is Donut's job to single out a camera-draped gnu from the migratory shuffle off the Gatwick Express, one slowed by age or by a sick suitcase. Then Donut nips in and harries the victim with advice; "You haven't booked one, no? Issabout an ournarf wait. We'll do it for you straightaway." They don't feel a thing until they get to their hotel and the trap closes. "Werl," says the taxi-driver, all bemusement when they query the charge. "Sunday... And you've got the night charge as well." The assiduity of these guys is startling - they even try to steal the money they're stealing from you, furtively peeling a tenner from the paperback-sized wad you've handed over so that the count comes out low. Sue Hutchinson, a taxi-driver herself, confronted them with a reckless faith in their reluctance to resort to violence.