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TV: Mark Smith on The Street

A neon sign flashes "MAGICAL FAST FOOD". A tanked-up teenager falls down and can't get up again; her legs flail in the air, chubby and white.

A group gathers round a man who has nowhere to sleep and asks God to help him in the days ahead. And at the end of the street, a fat man with beer in his belly snarls out abuse at a busker. "Black b******," he says. How ugly and beautiful a street in Scotland can be.

The street in question is Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow and the ugliest part is the racist attack on a busker called Melo, which has quite rightly been causing considerable anger over the last few days. For a while, Melo used to sing reggae under the canopy in front of BHS, but what the first episode of The Street (BBC1, Monday, 10.35pm) showed was just how often he was subjected to racist attacks. "Every day since I came to Scotland, it has happened," he said.

The programme caught one of these attacks in all its sickening detail. "I pay tax to keep you in the country you black b******," said the abuser, his teeth clenched, his fists curled up into balls. Then the police turned up and one of the officers told Melo to chill out. He hadn't seen what we'd seen.

It was disturbing to watch, and impossible not to watch, but as well as shocking viewers, it could also serve a useful purpose as a piece of reality television. Recently, surveys have been suggesting Scots have a liberal attitude towards immigration and while that may be true on the clean, white pages of an opinion poll, it isn't true on the dirty streets at 2am on a Saturday morning.

The Street reminded us of that, and in the process could also make a useful contribution to the referendum debate. The Yes campaigners would no doubt love a programme that shows the colourful characters of a Scottish street but not a programme that exposes day-to-day racism because that doesn't fit with the constant refrain that England is a snarly, right-wing bully and Scotland is a left-of-centre teddy bear.

It's good that The Street has exposed that fallacy, but what it also exposed was how difficult life is on Sauchiehall Street, and how hard it still is to make a living there. We went inside the Savoy Centre, that wonderful bulwark against modernity, and spoke to some of the people who are trying to run small businesses at the fag end of a recession or in the lowlands of a recovery if you prefer.

Jim, the Savoy's manager, gave an indication of how hard things are when he said that the stress had almost driven him to quit. And then he went out into the street to drum up business. He didn't need PR or advertising, he said, because his customers were right here. And it was the right note to end on, the note that every reality show should end on: positive, expectant, hopeful.

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