Television

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THERE are few more reliable pleasures than a black-and-white film on the box of a dreary afternoon. I recently curled up for my sixth viewing of The Dam Busters. Everything was as I remembered: Michael Redgrave radiating decency in a pale cardie, the big weepy scene when Wing Commander Guy Gibson is told that his beloved black labrador has been killed: "It's Nigger, Sir." Not this time, though. This time Nigger had become "Trigger, Sir". A couple of things hit you right away. First, the crazy dissonance set up by Trigger - the name of Roy Rogers's horse. Second, the dissonance set up by the fact that a man who laid down his life fighting fascism was being censored by people who will probably never have to lay down anything more precious than Media Guardian.

To call your dog Nigger is literally thoughtless, even in an age of such notable faux pas as the invasion of Poland. But that thoughtlessness needs to be preserved as an authentic period detail, if only to show that it could co-exist with unarguable virtue. No amount of scrubbing - or dubbing - will clean up history. If you try, the result is a rank lie: All pleasant and politically correct, Sir.

I thought about Guy Gibson's dog again during Common as Muck (BBC1). William Ivory's new comedy- drama about Geordie binmen had a scene early on in which, just as the dustcart was pulling out of the depot, the supervisor's black labrador ran after it and the Dam Buster's march started up. Da da-da dum di- di dah dah . . . It was mock heroic here, but behind the mockery you sensed that Ivory believed we were in the presence of something almost heroic - the heroism of high spirits in the face of other men's garbage. Here was a writer - new to me - whose characters in all their mucky complexity would always call a spade a spade and probably kick the dog to boot. A writer with his wits on full beam and not afraid of the dark.

In the town hall sit the management. Sporting a navy blazer and pausing only to caress his squash trophy, George nurses the illusion that with the threat of privatisation hanging over them he will tame the binmen. "These steps represent a bright new dawn for refuse collection!" John (Roy Hudd) knows different. Queasy in sage velour, he has the look of a man recently promoted from the ranks who understands that the men aren't on for niceties while the enemy is still dropping chip wrappers at every corner.

Out on the truck are Foxy, his Marty Feldman eyes popping out beneath a Biggles helmet with flaps as wayward as its owner. Edward Woodward plays Nev, who may be in charge although it's hard to tell. (Former twitchy ferret, Woodward has lately barrelled into a Russian doll; unscrew his middle and you feel sure the lean, mean Callan will be scowling inside.) Then there's Ken, the one with the big heart and the temper to match. Superbly played by Neil Dudgeon, Ken is already a finalist in the Yosser Hughes High Dudgeon Memorial Stakes.

The crew is joined by Sunil, a student who peers at these primitives like a mystified Mowgli. ITV's Moving Stories also had an Indian lad so we could observe removal's arcane rituals through wide, ingenue eyes. But Ivory's handling of the device is incomparably bolder. Sunil ("Two- nil") is mercilessly teased about his colour by Ken but, confusingly, it is Ken who has the black wife. Ivory bends over backwards to avoid whimsical ethnic stereotypes and occasionally lands on his head. When Sunil complains his legs are shagged, his middle-aged mother is surely unlikely to enquire whether that is shagged as in tired or recently completed sexual intercourse. One duff note in a matchless ensemble piece.

Common as Muck carries a lot of big ideas, but the rude, robust dialogue cracks on at such a pace that they never weigh it down. The men, we come to understand, are paid to collect rubbish, but they don't have to take crap from anyone. Consider also the deft shadings of tone. …