Stories from the edge

Television - Andrew Billen on a series that lays bare lives of society's rejects - but is it all too

Wasted (Sundays, 8pm, Channel 4) is a series of grade-A depressing documentaries about those you quicken your pace to pass in the streets, citizens who contribute nothing to the economy but who do their bit for the petty crime statistics, those shambolic-looking ones who, aesthetically, make life a little less comfortable for the rest of us but, if we are lucky, otherwise hardly impinge on our existence at all. Pamela Gordon's documentaries originally had the umbrella title The Uncounted: stories from the edge, a slightly less argumentative description than that finally chosen for them, because you wondered at times what qualities these subjects of hers had to waste in the first place.

The first programme in the series starred a young woman resident in the warrenous shell of a former Victorian doss-house in the East End of London. Stacey had left home at 14, immediately became addicted to drugs and, at 24, was a prostitute of some years' standing.

If one was being charitable, one might conclude that we were witnessing the waste of a poetic talent. Some of Stacey's stuff was doggerel - "I haven't got a fucking clue/I haven't got a jar of glue" - but other poems had their moments, such as one on heroin: "When I take heroin, I feel like hot fudge is trickling through my body," she wrote temptingly.

When Jack London visited the Tower Hotel doss-house in 1908, he wrote that "a feeling of gloom pervaded the ill-lit place". For the viewer, the persistent gloom meant that most of the programme looked like an episode of The X-Files recorded without the aid of Agent Scully's flashlight. Even when you could make something out in the dark, nothing much, narratively speaking, seemed to be happening. For the first 40 minutes, the dramatic high-light was someone taking a swig from a bottle filled inexplicably with a cocktail of phlegm and blood. It was a relief, and not only visually, when Kelly's gang moved into a squat with electric lighting, although they were soon paid to leave by a couple of not unkindly landlords who had a better grasp of property law than the girls did.

The oddly named Magical World of Susie Wardrobe, the second in the series, took us to a Gateshead housing estate where Susie was dragging up Adam, her baby, even as the local Labour canvassers were touting for her vote. She had split up with Vinnie, Adam's father, which was a pity, because he was the only person visibly in employment for miles around. Instead, she had a disputatious relationship with Arthur, who, she said, had "something about him no other boyfriend ever had". What could this elusive something be? His expertise at video games, his ability to be ripped off by Billy the local junk dealer, the stoicism with which he received the application of a new tattoo?

Besides her taste in men, Susie's problem was debt. The film came to an almost comic end as she attempted to sell off enough of her friends' belongings to appease the local loan agent. By the end, Arthur was in Durham Prison and Vinnie had lost his job at Singapore Sam's - and Tony Blair had been returned to power on the lowest turnout since the First World War.

Petrolman, last Sunday's offering, was the strongest mainly because its narrative was the most packed and its central image the most striking. It began with a man listening to an Arsenal match on the car radio. This normality was disturbed only when we realised that there was a woman in the car, too, and that it was stationary. Steve and Gill, parents of the absent Jack, were, we realised, not going anywhere: this car was their home. They had been evicted from a bedsit two years earlier because of rent arrears and, deeming them "intentionally homeless", the council refused to house them.

Steve's car was also his workplace. Two or three times a week, he stole petrol from garages and sold it on half-price. When Steve eventually went to prison, Gill responded by going to pieces and a crackhouse in Ilford, Essex. On being released, Steve discovered that his "home" was burnt out, and so was his marriage. Arrested on an outstanding warrant, our Bonnie and Clyde were sentenced this time to a rehab programme, which Gill quickly abandoned but Steve stuck at. A closing caption told us he was still clean.

These films were less artful than the director's previous documentaries on runaways. Nevertheless, they, too, relied on the ministrations of a colourist and gloomy new music composed by Biosphere, Plane and yellow6 (sic). The casting was canny. Was it a coincidence that Stacey, Susie and Gill were all, beneath the grime of their diets and addictions, rather beautiful women with almost actressy good looks? The leitmotifs of the 2001 election, in the case of the Susie film, or Arsenal's progress to and eventual defeat in the FA Cup in Petrolman, reminded us we were watching not reality TV, but "well-made" films. I had an uneasy feeling not only that the films were working away at the raw material a little too much for the sincerity of the project, but also that the artifice concealed a certain pointlessness both to the subjects' lives and to the project.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer at the Times