Mrs Cohen for Chancellor of the Exchequer?

TELEVISION

We Are accustomed to television taking itself far too seriously, so it can come as a shock when it doesn't take itself seriously enough. The opening episode of Mrs Cohen's Money (C4, Monday) began on the roof of a skyscraper, from where Mrs Cohen threw sheaves of banknotes before settling into an irrelevantly placed chintz-covered armchair, complete with lurking standard lamp.

Thus were the programme-makers' intentions made clear. Here, it seemed, was another of those C4 "infotainment" half-hours, faintly educational, terrified of appearing so, and willing to try any ploy to deter terrified viewers from turning over to watch something else. Berenice Cohen herself looked like the ultimate gimmick - small, Jewish, mouthy and not at all the sort of person who usually presents programmes on personal finance. She even used the phrase "all that lovely lolly", which itself could have reduced the watching audience by anything up to 50 per cent.

But even in this first, ill-starred show there were signs of life. In trying to find out what had gone wrong with Mrs Thatcher's "shareholder economy", Mrs Cohen interviewed the usual stuffed shirt from the City, who gave all the usual answers to all the usual questions. The problem was that Mrs Cohen wasn't asking all the usual questions or listening to the man's non-answers or, for much of the time, letting him get a word in. He man had clearly been on every media course under the sun, but nothing had prepared him for this. Nothing, it emerged, had prepared us either.

For once you fight your way through the distractions - this week's backdrop was a mocked-up jungle, with Mrs C in a safari suit - there's a show of real substance here. In week two she addressed the astronomical cost of personal loans, the sort of subject we think we know something about but of course know very little about at all. A man in Bradford had borrowed several hundred pounds from a "reputable company", whose representative may well have let him form the impression that he would be paying interest at a flat 30 per cent. Mrs Cohen had a quick look at his contract and told him that the APR was in fact 353.9 per cent. The poor man looked as though he was going to burst into tears. Mrs Cohen was wonderfully sympathetic, as any mother would be.

This market - lending money to low-income families at extortionate rates - is of course a thriving one, about 40 per cent of which has been cornered by this "reputable company". Mrs Cohen's stockbroker (fantastically posh voice, like scraping wallpaper off the ceiling) told her the company was an excellent investment. Unfortunately no-one in the company would talk to her - sensible fellows - so Mrs Cohen went to see the Director General of Fair Trading instead. A sleeker fat cat you never did see. Because she wasn't playing his game, because she wasn't another dreary man in a suit, he treated her with palpable disdain. But Mrs C knew her onions, and duly savaged him. It was a heart-warming display, proving that arrogance, condescension and a pinstriped waistcoat are no match for the dogged aggression of the knowledgeable outsider.

Watching Mrs Cohen's Money, you realise how passionless so much television can be. But then so little television is presented by small middle-aged Jewish women who have a genuine point of view to put across. This week her long-time bank manager told of the way she had followed him around from branch to branch, "like a Jack Russell who has got her teeth into an old sock and won't let go". He knew her well, then.

Modern Times (BBC2, Wednesday) is an altogether cooler product, gloriously sleek and impressive, eschewing the merest notion of employing a presenter, and handing all authorial powers instead to the mighty director. Accordingly most of these films look like extended auditions for the $70 million Hollywood blockbusters to which even the humblest documentary director seems to aspire. This week's Jurors was a case in point, taking the first-person testimonies of men and women who had served on juries for murder trials, and transforming them into a grand guignol horror epic, full of ticking clocks, blue filters and a general sense of impending doom. It would have been funny, had it not scared the wits out of you.

Jury service, it seems, is a trauma waiting to happen. Most of us get a couple of burglaries and wish we could have done a nice juicy murder. Wrong again. All the TV and film violence in the world, we discovered, simply cannot prepare you for the real thing. One woman was threatened by the defendants; the judge said don't take any notice. But how can you not take any notice? Another woman, given the short straw of the Yorkshire Ripper trial, told of a particular weapon that none of the jury could bear to touch. Their frequent examinations of this weapon soon turned into frantic games of Pass the Parcel.

Of all, though, David's experience (names had been changed to protect the terrified) was perhaps the most chilling. Serving on a murder trial, he told of the tape of a woman who had called 999 after she had been shot. Unable to speak properly, she could not make herself understood, and the operator just kept repeating, "If there's a problem, can you get your mummy?" The woman died before help could reach her. After the verdict (guilty), the jury returned to the jury room and all burst into tears.

For five weeks they had had no physical contact, now they were all cuddling each other and holding hands. It took them an hour to compose themselves before they could leave the building. Despite the obvious horror of these experiences, the film actually confirmed your faith in the jury system, if only because of the jurors' evident decency and the way they accepted, with understandable reluctance, such a urdensome reponsibility.

After such matters the pressurised world of football management provided suitably light relief. The Sack Race (BBC2, Saturday) was a bit of a lark, really, presented by Alan Hansen with all the brio of a man who chose to become a generously remunerated TV pundit instead. Hardly an elegant wordsmith - managers, we learned, are "a special breed" - Hansen nonetheless knows so many people in football, and carries such respect, that he could draw virtually all of them out of their usual media-handling shells. Bobby Robson said that, at 64, he'd happily manage England again if they asked him. Jack Charlton admitted that he had never much enjoyed playing, and that management was much easier. Kenny Dalglish uttered sentences of more than four words. Ruud Gullit, fantastically relaxed as ever, revealed that he had lost his temper just once in his first year of management. His air of self-admonishment made it clear that he would not make the same mistake again.

The moment that summed it up best for me, though, came as Barry Fry watched his undistinguished Peterborough side struggle in another enthralling Second Division clash. "There's nobody on the back post!" he screamed. "There's nobody on the back post!" Goal instantly conceded at the back post. "I told you, there's nobody on the back post! 'Oo goes on the back post? 'Oo goes on the back post?" No-one knew because no-one was listening. Classic knockabout stuff.

David Aaronovitch returns in May

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