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Mobs come into the light

ONCE upon a time in America, there were 25 Mafia families who carved up the country between them.

Now there are just five, each a shadow of its former self, and instead of being at war with one another, they're tearing themselves apart.

Watching Mob Stories, an HBO documentary made some years ago but only now surfacing on Sky Atlantic, it wasn't hard to see why the Mafia went into steep decline. We've all watched Goodfellas, The Sopranos and The Godfather movies, which mythologised the Mafia's supposedly impenetrable code of omerta (silence).

There was nothing impenetrable about the hoods featured in Mob Stories, most of whom had turned informer at the first opportunity. They talked their heads off in court and were more than happy to talk their heads off here.

What came across most vividly was not just that the fabled honour among thieves no longer exists (if it ever existed at all), but how reckless and downright dumb most Mafiosi can be. Nothing could have prepared you for the sheer, knuckleheaded stupidity of some of the hoods featured.

The late John Gotti, head of the Gambino crime family, was the most dangerous and ruthless of all Mafia bosses. The so-called "Teflon Don" would kill someone in a heartbeat, yet this didn't prevent Albert Anastasia from betraying him.

On Gotti's orders, Anastasia killed a rival hood with a 12-gauge shotgun while the latter was taking a pee and then refused to accept payment for the hit, preferring to become a "made man" instead.

But greed got the better of him and he became involved in a freelance drug operation with a Pakistani gangster that pulled in $100,000.

The Gambinos never found out. The Feds did, though, so Anastasia obligingly squawked like a parrot and sent Gotti down for a life stretch.

The aptly named Tommy Agro, who wore a terrible wig so shiny it was said to reflect disco lights, was a flat-out psycho. Agro kept the finger of someone who'd stolen from him in a pickle jar in his bar, and the hand of another victim in the freezer.

Agro's capo, Joe 'Dogs' Ianuzzi, decided to turn state's evidence against his boss when, after some unspecified transgression, Agro nearly chopped his hand off with a meat cleaver.

Mooching his way back into the gang, Ianuzzi entrapped Agro in an FBI sting. He got away with it because he wore a wire down his crotch, a place no macho Mafioso would ever dare frisk.

Best of all was Tommy DelGiorno, who turned informer primarily, it seems, out of irritation with his boss, a vicious but incompetent character called 'Little Nicky' Scarfo, who strutted around in platform shoes to hide his lack of inches, and single-handedly wrecked the Philadelphia outfit by surrounding himself with outright idiots. "The gang that couldn't think straight," as DelGiorno dubbed them.

These were vicious men you wouldn't trust with your life. You'd trust them even less with your watch.

Entertaining as Torchwood: Miracle Day has been, the strain of maintaining 10 episodes over 10 weeks is beginning to show.

Four parts in and still there's no sign of who or what is responsible for everyone in the world suddenly becoming immortal (except for the usually immortal Jack Harkness, who's suffering the completely opposite effect).

We know pharmaceutical giant PhiCorp has been stockpiling drugs, but for what purpose? Last night's instalment was more Mission: Impossible than Miracle Day, as Jack, Gwen and CIA agent Rex breathlessly raced around breaking into places, getting caught and making narrow escapes.

But just as it threatened to spiral out of control, up pops Eighties teen-movie icon C Thomas Howell as a black-clad assassin. There was also some topical fun with Mare Winningham as an opportunistic Tea Party politician who ended up in a car-crusher. She's still alive, of course, with one eye swivelling amid the mangled metal.

The taster of next week's episode suggests we might finally get a few answers, so I'll keep the faith for now.

Nob stories ****

Torchwood: Miracle day ***