The Yardies launch a charm offensive

If you believed the billing for Network First's documentary "The Yardies", you would have settled down for a "revealing profile of the crime syndicate said to be even more brutal than the Mafia". You braced yourself for silhouetted witnesses and one of those family trees with which crime documentaries explain the architecture of organised malice. For the first 30 seconds of the film you weren't disabused: a brisk montage of news reports stoked up the notion of alien threat and unheeded warning.

But then the soundtrack gave the game away. As the camera showed you some of Kingston's wilder shanty-towns, a voice explained that "Yardies are supposed to come from ghettos such as these". Supposed? Be serious, please. We're all worked up, ready to believe that civilisation is going to melt and bubble, like a rock of crack under the flame, and suddenly it's "supposed". Surely a documentary that "penetrates normally closed communities to chart the rise of the Yardie gangs" could come up with something a bit more definitive than that? We want Uzis and we get uncertainty. Then things got worse still: a voice explained that Yardies is simply a Jamaican term for... Jamaicans. Carlton had sold it to you as the hard- stuff and it turned out to be as innocuous as baking-soda.

But Kimi Zabihyan's film was hardly a waste of time, even if it came close to a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. I don't know whether she was responsible for the huckstering publicity or if it was foisted upon her, but the film itself was not so much an animated wanted poster as a sympathetic sketch of Jamaican slum life. Of course, your standards for what constitutes a "crime baron" might be looser than mine but I don't think Peter, the main character in the film, readily qualifies. True, you wouldn't much care to have an argument with him; his left arm was scabbed and pitted, the result of a splashback after he'd tried to throw acid over his neighbour. Acid is the weapon of choice for many poor Jamaicans, because it is cheaper than guns. It is also harder to aim, a fact Peter discovered the hard way.

But Peter was scraping a living by videoing weddings and funerals - mostly funerals and mostly his friends - which isn't the standard apprenticeship for crime barony. He brought a "gangsta-style" suit towards the end, but only because he'd saved up for long enough. You wouldn't have been greatly surprised if he'd turned out to be doing a paper-round to help with the payments.

There were some more alarming types in the film, throwing their weight around and waving big guns, but they were all policemen. Zabihyan filmed the bizarre consequence of a raid on an informal disco, in which the arrested men were auditioned to check their claims that they had simply been taking part in a talent contest. "Come again, agly man," drawled the arresting sergeant, inviting yet another suspect to sing for his freedom. Had a solicitor been present, he would certainly have insisted that his client wouldn't co-operate without the presence of a three-part backing group. Then again, niceties of law don't seem to impress Jamaican policeman very much: "Every man is guilty until proved otherwise," a young constable informed the small crowd he had arrested. "I consider you all as thieves."

Such are the occupational hazards of "career poverty", a phrase coined by Clive James in Postcard from Bombay (BBC1). The remark might have sounded flippant, but for its proper acknowledgement that the poor are in it for life, and for the fact that James followed it with a nicely sardonic riposte to theories of "trickle-down". "Nobody out here is in danger of drowning in affluence," he pointed out. The poor are always with us, it seems; sometimes we just try to ignore them and sometimes, as in the case of the Yardies, we turn them into demons.