Waiting for crims

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 January, 1998, 12:00am

The BBC ran a brilliant fly-on-the-wall documentary series about 10 years ago on the British Customs and Excise service. There were dramatic moments, sting operations, hilarious dead pan undercover officers and major arrests. The most memorable bits were the smugglers themselves - not the serious villains - but the unlikely or entertaining characters.

There was the elderly couple who drove into France in their little Vauxhall, and came back with enough liquor to open a small off-licence hidden under the seats. In fact, opening an off-licence was exactly what they intended to do, as they admitted to the customs officers, and they did not want to have to bother with paying high British tax on alcohol.

And there was the cocky Scandinavian cannabis smuggler who not only drove in enough good gear to keep half London going for several weeks - after he was sent down, he escaped from prison and sent the customs men who had arrested him a postcard.

And there were the pathetic Pakistani women who had been persuaded by unscrupulous middle men to bring lots of heroin over tucked into their saris, and now ended up weeping in an interview room at Heathrow.

I am sure Anita Bronson, the woman who wrote The Knock (Star World, 9pm), the new series about a group of undercover customs officers, must have seen the show, or at least heard about it. The Knock portrays the work of the London City and South Investigation Unit, headed by Customs surveyor Bill Adams (Malcolm Storry). He has a small team of officers, who are a nice demographic mix: one Italian, one black, one Geordie, one posh, one gorgeous.

Carlton TV, who made the series, clearly decided no expense should be spared to get across the global nature of the fight against illegal trafficking. As well as more than half a dozen main characters to get to know, viewers are presented with five separate cases, and at least one personal life plotline, in locations as diverse as Bogota and St Hellier.

In less capable hands this could be confusing. Instead, it is rather exciting and not the least because, apart from an early collision with a drug dealer who prefers to eat his entire stash rather than part with it, the action is violence-free. The tension comes from the sense that the team is fighting an almost impossible battle. There is plenty of sitting around in cars, trailing suspects in and out of hotel lobbies, phoning one another on mobile phones, and even sitting in a cramped office arguing over who gets to make the coffee.

Instead of undercutting the drama, this means that as in the BBC documentary, the audience gets a real sense of the way most of the job is hanging around, followed by rare, exquisite moments when they get the bad guys. When Adams nabs a drug baron, after a particularly complicated operation in which civil servants masquerade as a doctor and a towing company, he is so excited he punches the air. A small gesture, but it says a lot about the subtlety of the show.

Asking Jean-Luc Godard to make the French contribution to the BFI series celebrating 100 years of world cinema, Century of Cinema (World, 12.40am) was a bit like asking a cat to mind the budgie: asking for trouble. Godard has spent his whole career as a professional film-maker attacking and redefining the art of film-making. Of all the New Wave generation, he is the most polemical, the most theoretical and the most political. It was hardly likely he would turn down the chance for controversy.

2 x 50 Years of French Cinema does not celebrate the past and look forward to the future. Instead Godard spends most of the film arguing with actor Michel Piccoli about the death of French cinema. This film, Godard argues, is a chronicle of forgetting, the way French cinema is losing what makes it unique.