Cock of the credit union

Television - Andrew Billen welcomes a writer as he comes into his own with a superb drama

Ivy, a fossilised crone with hair like bleached candyfloss, is making a royal departure from the concrete fortress of her council estate. The crowds that follow her are chanting, "Viva Espana". Ivy is waving her umbrella in the air. "Packed your condoms?" a voice cries. It is a day of celebration. Jim has fixed it for her to fly to Palma and take a holiday with her sister - "our last chance to really see each other" - and Ivy is off.

Actually, it is not Jim who has worked the magic, but a credit union set up by the residents themselves, so sick are they of being in hock to the local loans agency R S Manors, with interest rates that swell at an APR of 250 per cent. Lent the money for her flight, Ivy is one the early jewels in the credit union's crown, an emblem of a depressed community's fight back to solvency and of the return of its compassion. There is just one flaw in the fairy tale. In Majorca, Ivy does a bunk and refuses to repay the money.

Ivy's story was the merest sub-plot in Tony Marchant's involving Never Never, a two-part, three-hour drama shown on Channel 4 (Sunday 5 and Monday 6 November), but it carried all the work's themes. Should you trust your neighbour? What price self-belief? Can business ever be moral? Does poverty kill decency? It may be better to light a penny candle than curse the dark, but Marchant discovered in a self-policing credit union a perfect means of illuminating the inner city, warts and all.

His hero was John Parlour, charismatically played like a young Tony Parsons by John Simm (from The Lakes). At the start, John is the star turn of R S Manors, a charmer who can sell two ironing boards to homes without an iron. He is far from the hated figure he deserves to be, but he pushes one customer too far - a fanciable single mother, Jo Weller (the brilliant Sophie Okonedo). Unable to repay him, Jo organises her brother to mug John one night.

John wakes up in hospital with a limp and a fractured skull, but minus a spleen and the money he had collected. His boss reckons he has also lost his nerve, so he is soon out of a job and out of his flat, too. Thanks to the mechanics of the plot, he finds himself living on the estate off which he once leached. Under the wing of the social worker Martin (Adam Kotz), his rival for Jo's affections, John sets up a credit union and it grows like Topsy. By the end, it has taken over the premises of one of those many high street banks that have retreated to call-centres. Anthony Hopkins will soon be making its adverts.

Yet his second chance brings John much woe. He discovers, rather late in the day, that it is Jo, by now his lover, who masterminded his mugging, and he goes on a drunken binge on the streets. (He drinks from a can hidden in a brown paper bag; maybe he has been watching too many American films.) He forgives her, but he is tougher, wiser and more cynical about people thenceforth. By the end of the drama, he is screwing a clerk, and his relationship with Jo has been reduced to what it was at the beginning: he doles out loans and she gratefully accepts them. He sacks the credit union's muddly old accountant, telling him that the union is not there to make him feel like "a competent human being". He even turns to violence, which he never did in his old life, punching out a bad debtor with the words: "I had a mandate." John the debt collector was actually a nicer person than John the community banker. His spleen has grown back.

The jerky camera-work had its moments of poetry - before John is attacked, he is followed down endless stairs and ramparts as if he is descending into hell - and there was some fine acting: it was especially good to see Ruth Sheen, from Mike Leigh's High Hopes. But although John and Jo's romance was highly realised, Marchant did not fully dramatise enough secondary relationships - the sexual and class rivalry between Martin and John, for example. John's ex-boss, Bruce Gayle (Michael Jackson), was a jolly good villain, but Marchant's other attempts at inventing Dickensian grotesques - Ivy apart - remained sketchy, such as with Bob the Murderer (played by Jake Nightingale). Yet if it was blank naturalism he was after, Marchant's director, Julian Jarrold, failed to produce the rock-bottom realism of estate life shown in Tony Garnett's The Cops.

Intellectually, I was left trying to place Marchant. What he portrayed was working-class ignorance, venality and incompetence - but I felt that, unlike Emile Zola, who nobly buried himself in the French underclass and emerged horrified by it, Marchant was not moved by his subject. Indeed, it was unclear exactly what his attitude was. Ken Loach - that great, Hardyesque determinist - would have had the new bank fail, for as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods of capitalism. The system would be blamed for the moral defects of its products. But Marchant assumed almost no political stance: the City executives who handed over control of their bank were rather good chaps.

But never mind if Marchant is no Zola, no Dickens, nor even a Loach or a Garnett. Comparisons are odious. With Never Never, Marchant - sometimes an exploitative writer, but not here - comes into maturity.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture