Andrew Billen - Keeping it real

Television - Two documentaries with rather different approaches. By Andrew Billen

Sleeping With

In television documentaries - the original reality TV - there are essentially only two approaches. You can tell or you can show. The older technique, because the technology was hardly up to anything else, is telling or, rather, getting your subjects to tell their story. Sleep- ing With the Au Pair (28 July), part of Channel 4's Cutting Edge series, relied on it. Three men recalled the consequences of succumbing to what Tony Parsons once described to me as the male temptation to slip the nanny one as she's bending over the washing machine. The strength of this approach is that what you lose in footage of events you gain, or should gain, in perspective.

Simon, who briefly ran off with a Pole called Magda, had perspective coming out of his ears. He was even interviewed high on a Welsh mountain, as if the programme-makers were asking him to survey not only his domestic history but its geography, and would not have been entirely surprised if he chose to throw himself off a cliff then and there. The day his betrayed wife asked him to leave was, Simon said, "exactly like all the other days I've done something terrible in my life, the same sick feeling". Among these terrible things were a car crash and an armed robbery for which he served nine years. It was during a prison production of Macbeth that he met his wife, Alice, the Marquess of Queensberry's daughter.

The working-class criminal's marriage to a pretty aristocrat and their decision to retreat to a remote church in Wales was worth a programme in its own right. The union was clearly problematic even before Magda turned up. When she did, it was doomed, although Alice was put off the scent for a while by Magda being, while flirtatious, plain. But Magda had one thing over Alice. She was willing to sleep with Simon. "I felt," he reasonably complained, "that at 33, having masturbated my way through both prison and the army, I was doing so through my marriage."

Anyhow, the fling ended in disaster, with Simon running off to a boarding house with Magda and her leaving him almost immediately. Simon got some access to the children and eventually became Alice's paid au pair. They are now back as a married couple, but the final shots of Alice weeping on the sofa, pleading with him to make their relationship "normal", did not, unfortunately, inspire huge confidence.

The programme's remaining stories were less gripping. Tariq decided he needed an au pair to tend his children after his marriage broke up. According to her CV, Petra, a gorgeous Slovakian, did not cook, swim or like pets, but Tariq reckoned there was something about her he "couldn't put a finger on". He soon rectified that, and they have been engaged for some time. Army officer Alistair, meanwhile, cheated with the au pair down at the pub while her indoors watched Coronation Street. Karin from Sweden later gave birth to their daughter, but they then separated. Alistair, 44, is now going out with "a lovely lady, absolute angel", aged 21.

Hannah Berryman's programme hardly needed to hammer home the point that power rather than love was at the centre of each of these romances. Simon, economically and socially his wife's inferior, and unable even to master her in bed, exerted his need to determine his life by pushing at Magda's open door. Petra, still confused as to how far down the path from au pair to wife she has travelled, says she would never let Tariq employ an au pair again. Even Alistair got the message when it was explained to him: "Looking back," he admitted, "you are taking advantage. The au pair is in a vulnerable position."

BBC2's one-off I'm Alright Jack (29 July) showed rather than told. It recorded a selfish 32-year-old City slicker's week working in a hostel for the homeless in south London. The "Alright Jack" in question was Andrew Diaper, who felt he paid enough tax already without giving any more to the needy. His greatest problem - ironically, given his surname - was that he could not stand the hostel's pervasive aroma of piss and shit. His nausea became a running gag, or gagging one. Yet he worked out that, beneath the smell, the inmates were ordinary people, victims of circumstance. As he said: "They might be smelly. They might be dirty. They might be sleeping in a cardboard box in your doorway. But they might just be your dad."

His growing affection for the drunks and the widening of his political per- spective worked a treat in TV terms, but Gabe Solomon's programme was better at building a portrait of the Thames Reach Bondway hostel than one of Andrew. In the programme's dying moments, he suggested that he had had personal experience of the damage drunks do to others, hence his aversion to them. Was this why he hypothetically mentioned his father? I trust not, but no one (on camera at least) asked.

What was most telling was not the gap between the down-and-outs and the salesman, but the gap between the salesman and the staff. Andrew immediately converted his awakened compassion into realisable goals. He persuaded the local offie to donate cigarettes to the centre and blagged match tickets for residents off Crystal Palace. He is now in charge of the hostel's fundraising. Andrew looks for quick outcomes. The heroes who work there, desensitised to the stink, know instant success is exactly what charity work never promises.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times