Television review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In the late 18th century, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham put forward the idea of the Panopticon, a circular prison in which inmates would be subject to the inspection of their guards at all times of the day and night. The notion was that constant observation had some ameliorative moral force in itself, an efficient secular replacement for the unblinking eye of God (which presumably bothered 18th-century bruisers little more than their 20th-century counterparts). Watching When the Fighting Starts (C4), it occurred to you that Bentham would have loved video-camera technology, which has allowed more than a few towns in Britain to construct virtual Panopticons - scrutinised cities in which acts of violence can be observed and recorded with serene impartiality.

Actually the impartiality bit isn't quite true - there's a strong presumption of guilt in these grainy pictures, partly because there's no point in showing the miles of innocent footage, partly because the fuzz and murk excites your sense of vigilance... can you spot the incipient crime in this banal gathering of youths? This is one reason, I suppose, why the expanding use of such surveillance has become a civil-liberties issue, though the anxiety seems a little precious to me. I think I'm prepared to trade a little of my liberty to walk down the street unobserved, in return for the liberty of having an ambulance turn up promptly when I've suffered an unprovoked attack with a scaffolding pole - as happened to one of the young men here. It's true that the cameras didn't stop the assault in the first place, but they did ensure that his assailant was jailed and that he didn't expire on the pavement outside Blockbuster Video.

Other unwilling film stars also appeared, adding a sober commentary to these Keystone Nasties in which they lurched and punched and kicked ("Buster Keaton could come in at any moment," said one perpetrator in aggrieved tones, as if the comic aesthetic of the film had somehow turned his brutality to slapstick). All had been convicted by video evidence, in circumstances where prosecution would have been near impossible without the presence of cameras, so there was little doubt of the preventative effect of the system.

The hope that it might also have some rehabilitative effect - like Bentham's shaming gaze - flickered out very quickly. "That ain't sweet... I was out of order," Tony conceded, after we had watched him take a carefully aimed kick at his friend's head (a little tiff, you know) but it wasn't long before he was back to self-exculpation. "I 'ad no choice. What could I do?" he asked, all innocent appeal. "My old man said to me, `You let anyone up, they'll do yer'." It wasn't that he had no morality, just that the morality he had was rooted in fist and boot.

Watching these enraged young men settle on such easy terms with their consciences, you were tempted to think of harsher punishments than fines and community service - something like sealing them in a steel container and sinking them to the bottom of the sea. Then again, according to one school, it might be the making of them. Certainly the submariners in last night's episode of Nautilus (BBC2) offered a far more benign example of male solidarity. It helped, naturally, that they could channel all their aggression towards the unseen enemy, the one trying to open the can with depth charges. But the compression of many men in a tiny space seemed to have effected a larger refinement, diminishing distinctions of rank and condensing instincts of fraternity and affection. Unaccountably, this tenderness extended to the torture chambers in which they sailed (on North Atlantic duties, icicles formed inside the hull). One submariner recalled seeing his former boat on its way for scrap - "A tug came along and towed the old girl away for razor blades," he said with watery eyes, "and I thought, `That's not fair'."