Inside story

Television - Andrew Billen discovers what life is like behind bars

Accountability is a wonderful thing, but it comes at a cost. Running the Ofthises and Ofthats which monitor public services must cost a bomb. I propose a saving: allow TV crews unlimited access to each of our failing institutions and accept the resulting fly-on-the-wall documentaries as definitive. TV's usual bias in favour of drama and bad news would at least keep the film-makers' eyes peeled. In contrast, Trouble at the Top's special edition on Wandsworth Prison (27 February, BBC2) ended with the faint but unmistakable rustle of wool being pulled over official eyes.

The authorities certainly had been on Wandsworth's case. In 1999, the nation's biggest jail earned a damning report from the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, for its "climate of fear". In a typical pendulum-swing response, the Home Office appointed one of the prison service's youngest, least experienced and most "progressive" governors. Staff were soon calling the 37-year-old Stephen Rimmer a "bleeding heart liberal governor", and worse.

One of the persistent questions in my mind was what kind of organisation allows its staff to slag off their boss so freely in front of television cameras? You could see their point, however. Superficially, Rimmer was a cross between the management-speak chief inspector in The Cops and the all-at-sea Torsten Friedag, the German who was brought in to run the new Islington Arts and Media School in north London (the subject of a BBC2 documentary last September). To make matters worse, he looked like Curly Watts, which gave his scenes a comic edge. When he abolished the jail's guard-dogs unit, he suggested that the now dogless dog-handlers might wish to visit the staff counsellor. His kennel man replied, with some restraint: "I don't think the lads would go for it. They are not suicidal, guv'."

The prisoners, on the other hand, were. Or some of them had been: five deaths in nine months. If Mary-Anne Thompson's film had a weakness, it was that it didn't manage to interview the prison's depressed and dispossessed. Instead, we witnessed the bellicose and self-righteous. Two not very swarthy inmates demanded racial minority status as members of the "travellers' community". A work instructor was told "Bollocks. I ain't fucking doing it" by a charmer who reasoned that, because he had not worked outside, he was not going to labour for peanuts inside. Another inmate scorned Rimmer's offer of a colour TV to watch the European football championships in return for keeping a wing free of drugs because, under European law, televisions would have to be provided anyway.

On the same day that a huge drug haul was being discovered in the allegedly drug-free wing, the Home Secretary was visiting. Oblivious, he gobbled tea and biscuits in the staffroom and promised to send personal replies to staff who buttonholed him. A little later, the chief inspector of prisons turned up, three weeks early, all patrician and double-breasted and loaded with questionnaires for Rimmer's enemies: inmates, officers and, I wouldn't be surprised, any Alsatian still on the payroll. Rimmer, who had been told to lose £1m from his budget by Jack "I'll Write You" Straw, and to whom one warmed over time, declared he had lost his "emotional range". And the chief inspector's conclusion? "We're going to get a very good report," Rimmer told his amazed staff.

At least business cannot afford to trade in subjective judgements. The decline of St Michael is recorded in a sad succession of recent annual reports. Inside Marks & Spencer (25 February, Channel 4) merely dressed the wound, but it did so entertainingly. Lacking permission to elicit the shop-floor contributions that made Trouble at the Top so remarkable, it settled on a history-lesson format, dotted with old ads and anecdotes about the reign of the brilliant yet tyrannical Simon Marks. (One lingerie executive recalled being stopped in the corridor by Marks, who asked if he'd upset him that morning. " 'Not at all,' I said. 'In that case, you did not understand what I was telling you.' ")

Marks's successor in the difficult 1990s, Sir Richard Greenbury, was also interviewed and, while he looked harmless enough in his home, was clearly the equal of Marks in making fear climatic. But he was less good at inspiring the shop-floor staff, who were once the creme de la creme of shop assistants, their very feet tended to by armies of company chiropodists. As Greenbury went disastrously for international expansion, the indigenous sales staff were cut by 700.

The new man, Luc Vandevelde, seemed to have a fatal weakness for marketing fads. Brightly coloured banners would tempt customers to the farthest corners of his stores. (Oh yeah.) Ads with fat models would inspire the fuller- figured shoppers. (Where else would they go? Versace?) Like Rimmer, he wanted dramatic turnaround, new philosophies. Yet, in the age of Next and Tesco Metro, it may be that M&S has to be content with a reduced market share - just as, in the age of get-tough sentencing, jails will have to get used to scruffy overcrowding. After all, before Thatcher abolished the concept, Britain used to be good at the management of decline.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard