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Mancunian lesson

15 February 2013


PEOPLE like Us  (BBC3, Wednesdays) is reality TV with a vengeance. Harpurhey, in Manchester, has every mark of classic urban deprivation - it is a place of unemployment, crime, squalor, and abuse. This series follows the stories of some of its residents, and, on the scale of standard Christian moral codes, they score a cocktail of zeroes.

There is bubbly Amber, aged 18, swaggering off the plane from her first holiday abroad in Magaluf, proudly displaying her battle honours, having been barred from every establishment imaginable; a market trader, Jamie, whose only hobby is sexual relationships (not the term he employed), at which he appears to enjoy remarkable success; transgendered Nikki - formerly Nigel - and her alcoholic half-her-age partner, Chris; and the gay couple David and David, who run the corner shop.

But the programme's overall effect - on me, at least - is not to induce despair. There is an extraordinary level of energy, a kind of acceptance of others not often found in more sorted-out communities. The two Davids organise the first drag night in the local pub, and it seems to be enjoyed beyond the gay community. Nikki shows a remarkable tolerance for Chris, who starts on a programme to reduce his addiction. Amber is off to college, where her zest for life will surely make a mark.

Despite the rows, tension, and widespread obesity, this seems a place with an extraordinary amount of love and commitment.

Unreality TV was on display in its most seductive guise in the first two episodes of Dancing on the Edge (BBC2, Monday and Tuesday of last week). The BBC has a remarkable relationship with Stephen Poliakoff, apparently throwing money at his creations in compensation for the accounts-driven predictability of the rest of its output. This loyalty seems unrelated to any critical assessment of the quality of his screenplays.

In 1930s London, the members of a black jazz-band are taken up, apparently on a whim, by an ambitious journalist. In a short time, they are in residence at a grand hotel, the band of choice of the royal princes, and employed by them in the eternal battle against stuffy tradition and prejudice.

The cast is fabulous, and the settings and costumes are terrific. But I do not believe a word of it. The nagging feeling is, though, am I missing something? Is the plot's unrealism a slow-burn device whose denouement will make me seem unperceptive? I don't really care.

Ice Age Art (BBC2, Saturday) presented extraordinarily realistic human creations that were 40,000 years old. Andrew Graham-Dixon presented a trailer for the new exhibition at the British Museum, and was completely bowled over by the quality of cave-paintings and carvings. I think that his enthusiasm is well-founded, and the most crucial point is that these mustn't be considered as remarkably accomplished prehistoric artifacts, but as works of as great a level of sophistication as we can manage, by humans with the same brains and emotions as ourselves.

But this is not art as an added extra for those with time to enjoy it: these images of animals and humans were central to understanding life and death itself.

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