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The Street That Cut Everything (BBC1)

Nick Robinson has a nice way with ordinary folk.

What's that sound? Ah, yes. Plinkety-plonk. Plinkety-plonk. Of course. It's the oh-so-ironic soundtrack - cue bouncy strings and jaunty glockenspiels - of yet another reality-show-cum-documentary in which ordinary people make themselves thoroughly disagreeable for the benefit of television cameras. Admittedly, this one, presented by the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, was wearing a serious disguise, asking the question: how would city dwellers survive if their council services disappeared for six weeks? But, in essence, we have been here before. Like Wife Swap, Come Dine With Me and all the rest, this was Lord of the Flies in suburbia, with email in place of the conch, and nasty, moaning grown-ups in place of the bullying schoolboys. William Golding has a lot to answer for, if you ask me.

The city in question was Preston, a place whose chief claim to fame - as far as I'm concerned - is its excellent brutalist bus station by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson. Sadly, though, we never got to see the bus station.

The action in The Street That Cut Everything (Monday 16 May, 9pm and 10.35pm) was restricted to a single boring cul-de-sac and the occasional public loo (I will return, clothes peg on nose, to these loos shortly).

Robinson never explained why Preston had been chosen to take part in this experiment but, so far as the council went, its involvement was a masterstroke. A week in and all was forgiven. It's amazing how a few bags of rotting rubbish and some nice piles of steaming dog turds can push to the back of the mind such things as silly logos, excessive street furniture and glossy free newspapers. As for Robinson, I'm not sure what this film did for his brand. There were times when it felt to me perilously close to a piece of anti-cuts propaganda. On the plus side, however, he has a lovely way with regular people, which is surely rather surprising in one who spends so much time in Westminster - land of robots, weirdos and splitters of semantic hairs.

The film as a whole, though, failed because what happened once the council had turned off the street lights and removed the dustbins was so entirely predictable. A thriller this wasn't. Guess what? It turns out that we don't like having to clean up after ourselves. Nor are we particularly keen to look after the elderly and disabled, not even when they are related to us. Given our own budget to run, our generalised feelings about such things as free school meals and housing benefits turn unpleasantly personal (there was a mildly nasty moment when one resident accused another of fecklessness).

Desperate to inject some drama, the producers kept changing the rules, and so it was that some residents were bussed out to a public lav for a session with the bleach and the rubber gloves. Oh dear. The effects of council cuts are obviously already being felt in Preston: three cleaners had to share just one loo brush. Meanwhile, in the other direction, teenage hoodies were bussed in and played loud music in the dead of night. The council's environmental health department being strictly out of bounds, the residents had to deal with this themselves, something that only emphasised the artificiality of the set-up: in real life, they would surely have rung the police, fearing knives.

All this was thoroughly wearying, though I must admit that my main preoccupation by now was with the utter old-baggishness of some of the residents. Step forward Maria Haggis, nursery teacher. From the moment I set eyes on Maria, a woman whose face strongly suggested that she last laughed in 1977, I just knew she would be the first person to say the dread words: "I don't know who she thinks she is!" And so it proved. The victim of her chippy ire was Janette St Jean, a drama teacher, who had the temerity to chair one of the residents' meetings. Not that she was much more lovable herself. There was something unsettling about the satisfied way in which she informed her neighbours that her father, whose care she wanted them to fund, had lost both his legs. I know that suburbia can be mighty competitive. But surely some things are still out of bounds? l

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0