TV: Bystanders

`I was a bit groggy by this time, but I distinctly remember some bits of cinefilm, all smeary and over-exposed, and I think he belted me with several of those arty portrait shots ...'
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Bystanders (BBC2), a film for the Modern Times strand, was about the increasing reluctance of passers-by to involve themselves in the distress of others.

Several tales were told - by people who regretted not going to the aid of those in need and, more pointedly, by those who bitterly regretted not having been helped. It was - despite some alleviating tales of rescue - a pretty depressing experience: a portrait of a world in which most people pass by on the other side, however ugly the incidents they are ignoring.

But Nicholas O'Dwyer's film was also so precious in its manner that it eventually stirred a fantasy about the similar tale of unprovoked attack which the viewer would have been able to recount.

"It were awful - first he come at me with these long monochrome sequences out of focus ... you know the sort of thing ... all the youngsters have to have them nowadays. Then he started in on the fragmented close-ups of the human face - giant teary eyes and that kind of thing ... I was a bit groggy by this time, but I distinctly remember some bits of cinefilm, all smeary and over-exposed, and I think he belted me with several of those arty portrait shots - where the interviewee stands very still so you can't be quite sure whether it's a photograph or not. I mean it's all so unnecessary, isn't it? `Why? Why are you doing these things to me?' I kept asking. But he wouldn't answer ... just kept on with the anecdotes until eventually I think I must have lost consciousness. And you know the thing I can't get out of my mind? Nobody at the BBC lifted a finger to stop him ... they just stood by and watched it happen. Well, you can imagine how I feel about the licence fee now, can't you?"

It wasn't that bad, naturally (even if the words "apparently motiveless" seemed the best description of some of its artistic flourishes). Indeed, in its provocation to your own conscience the overall effect was morally improving in a rather old-fashioned way. A couple of times the interviewees put the question directly - "What would you have done?" - a faint stiffness in their voices suggesting that they might have been coaxed into this parsonical interrogation of the audience. In most cases the desirable answer was obvious: you would infinitely prefer to identify yourself with the white knights who had shown an instinctive decency, than with the apologists for the averted gaze (like the young suit who offered various sophisticated excuses for sitting through a nasty assault on an elderly person, and then congratulated himself on having come forward once the danger had passed).

Of course, the true answer may be quite different when push comes to shove - because until theory becomes practice, it is almost impossible to know how inhibiting your cowardice or even your embarrassment will be. Those who had found out the hard way did seem annealed by the experience - such as the woman who hadn't prevented a woman from beating her child, and regretted it so persistently that she later leapt from her car when she saw a child being bullied by 14-year-olds. By showing you how remorse can sit at your shoulder for years and years after a failure of nerve, Bystander offered an argument to set against the loud shriek of self- preservation that is likely to come from the other side.

The trial of Mahmoud Mattan, the last man to be hanged in Cardiff jail, is not exactly an ornament of British justice. The Somalian immigrant, charged with cutting the throat of a local dress-shop owner, was described in court as "a half-child of nature, a semi-civilised savage" - and that was his defence lawyer speaking. Black Britain (BBC2) detailed the numerous breaches of good practice involved in his conviction - from grossly improper identification parades to the withholding of crucial evidence.

They also came up with the all-important "alternative scenario", directing your attention rather pointedly at the only hostile witness at the trial - a man with convictions for violence, who later slit his own daughter's throat. It all made a pretty conclusive case for a miscarriage of justice, and was an intriguing slice of social history, too.

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