TV review: Living on borrowed time

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Loan sharks are a fact of life on many inner city estates, but their victims traditionally suffer in silence. A new drama which came out of a Cutting Edge documentary uncovers this brutal and frightening sub-culture

A debtor is slammed against a van by two vicious loan sharks to whom she owes money. As a razor blade is applied to her face, she pleads: "please, not my face." "Sweetheart, this man has no time for breaking legs," the loan shark snarls, before slicing her cheek open.

This is one of many gruesome scenes from Bumping the Odds, a compelling, if graphically violent drama about loan sharks on BBC2 tomorrow. Contrary to popular belief, these vicious creatures don't just prowl The Bronx or South Central LA; they swarm around our inner-city streets, too. Swathes of London, Liverpool and Manchester have become shark-infested.

Bumping the Odds is set on the meanest streets of Glasgow, where the problem of sharp-toothed and sharp-suited sharks is as bad as anywhere. If the film has the ring of grim plausibility about it, then that is not surprising. It is based on the extensive research the director Rob Rohrer undertook for an earlier Channel 4 Cutting Edge documentary about loan sharks. (His car had pounds 300-worth of damage to prove the dangers of swimming too close.)

Much as those elsewhere may remain unaware of their existence, loan sharks are a fact of life on urban estates. "I was brought up with them in Liverpool," says Rohrer. "They're part of the fabric of inner-cities. Loan sharks and pawn shops are institutions. You go to most working-class neighbourhoods, whisper that you need money, and you'll soon meet the local shark."

Rohrer encountered some who told him with a straight face that they were offering a social service. "They said to me, `Where else would you get money at 10 o'clock at night with no security?' In the same breath, they were saying, `Of course I have to hit people to get money back'. You can't dislodge the logic of it.

"Loan sharking in its lowest form is crime," Rohrer continues. "They're picking up the people the banks won't touch and lending them money without a licence. Glasgow has a huge concentration of money-lenders, to give them their gentlest title. You and I borrow money from the bank. If we don't give it back, we get our house re-possessed. If you don't give it back to a loan shark, you get your face re-possessed."

It all makes for shockingly powerful drama. "It doesn't duck the difficult questions," asserts Alex Graham, the Glaswegian executive producer of Bumping the Odds. "We're trying to tell some kind of truth about the world these people inhabit, and the film does have a strong smack of authenticity. Like Trainspotting, some scenes are unbearable, but they suck you in in a very visceral way."

In one excruciating scene, the central figure, Lynette (Shirley Henderson), is berating her boyfriend, Andy (Joe McFadden), for buying extravagant white goods with loan-shark money. "I need food, I need rent," she shouts. "I need my face the shape it is. You traded my face for a washer-dryer."

But the question remains: why do we know so little about these appalling activities going on under our very noses? Why is this story not being told? "The victims of loan sharks don't have a voice," Rohrer reckons. "They're too busy trying to survive to run a pressure group. They're off the political map. We don't take loan sharking seriously because its victims are the most powerless people in society. They're terrified to talk because they live in fear of their lives. In Glasgow, one loan shark's favourite way of dealing with non-payers is to slash the tendons at the back of their legs. It's a vicious world we don't often see.

"There is also a very pernicious ethic in working-class communities of `thou shalt not grass'," Rohrer continues. "If a loan shark says to you, `If you don't pay me, I'll slice up your family,' what do you do? If you go to the police in a close- knit community, what will be visited upon you is worse. The police are seen as the enemy."

Worst of all, many families are dependent on the loan sharks as their only means of survival. "There is a huge whirlpool of debt and you get sucked down by it to the point where you can't fight back," Rohrer contends. "Loan sharks are your last life-line. Without them, some people wouldn't have any money at all. People say, `How would I feed and clothe my kids without my loan shark?' At the same time, the loan shark is giving them a Mars Bar [scar], as they say in Glasgow. The choice is to borrow from a loan shark, or go out on the streets."

The director is worried that in the future commissioning editors, increasingly motivated by viewing figures, will ignore such difficult subjects. "TV is paying less attention to this sort of problem," Rohrer claims. "It's not sexy, and it doesn't pull ratings. British TV is moving towards a more popular take on everything. It's becoming more exceptional that TV looks into the darker recesses of our community. Some of it isn't palatable, but sometimes good programmes take an effort to watch. Who can honestly put their hand up and say, `I found it a real doddle watching that documentary about Auschwitz'?"

`Bumping the Odds' is tomorrow on BBC2 at 10.15pm