Totally Shameless: How TV Portrays the Working Class. Owen Jones argues against what he sees as a growing strain of malevolent British TV programming denigrating the working class.
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denigrate working-class people on television? To simply replace a
whole section of British society with ugly stereotypes? I suppose it
would have been about a decade ago, when the unapologetic shrillness in
the criticism of the poorer end of society really sank in. I remember
one particular judgment being delivered by an Oxford student, in a
crisp, well-spoken English accent: a young man loudly berating, quote,
"those Vicky Pollards "rampaging around council estates."
By then, Matt Lucas and David Walliams' comedy series Little
Britain had become a national TV phenomenon. It was a show laughed at
by people from all backgrounds. Its catchphrases yelled in the nation's
playgrounds. And yet, here was someone from a pampered background
treating a grotesque caricature of a single teenage mum on a council
estate as though she was a real person and not the comic stereotype
you saw just a moment ago. And that privileged Oxford undergraduate
wasn't alone. James Delingpole, a journalist who once argued he was a
member of the most discriminated against group in society, "the
white, middle-aged, public-school-and-Oxbridge-educated
"middle-class male" made a similar point in a Times newspaper article.
Under the headline, A Conspiracy Against Chavs? Count Me In, he noted
- "The reason Vicky Pollard caught the public imagination is that she
"embodies, with such fearful accuracy, several of the great
"scourges of contemporary Britain. "Aggressive all-female gangs of
embittered, "hormonal teenagers. Gym-slip mums who choose to get
pregnant as a career option. Pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers
who'll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye." Strong meat
indeed, and with a side order of misogyny. For a moment, put aside
what the controversial term "chav" symbolises, something that would
later engross me. I was shocked at how a TV caricature - who,
hilariously, once swapped one of her kids for a Westlife CD - was no
longer being treated simply as a bit of a laugh and an absurd figure of
fun. Rather, here, apparently, was a real person who was emblematic of
hundreds of thousands of young British women of a certain class.
And, more shocking still was a YouGov poll conducted in 2006 at the
Edinburgh International Television Festival. Attended by the cream of
Britain's television producers, it transpired that over 70% of them
believed Vicky Pollard was an accurate representation of so-called
"white working-class youth". I mention this not as a statistical
cheap shot at all British television producers, many of whom I know are
intelligent, responsible programme-makers. But because, it
seems to me, that over the last couple years, such ludicrous
misunderstandings and, critically, a new era of austerity in modern
Britain, there has now grown a significant strain of malignant
programming. And these programmes, either consciously or unwittingly,
suggest that now, in 2013, on British television, it's open season
on millions of working-class people and some of the poorest people in
society. Take, for example, a recent three-part Channel five series. Each
episode is entitled as follows - Shoplifters And Proud, Pick Pockets
And Proud and, completing the seemingly criminal trilogy, On
Benefits And Proud. Big families on benefits need big
houses. Heather Frost and her 11 kids are no
excerption. You have dinners today. You have
packed lunches tomorrow. They're in line for this impressive
new home. But for now, two neighbouring
three-bed council houses are where you'll find Heather and all those
Then Toby, Angel, Jay, Chloe, Paige, Emily, Beth, Ruby, Daisy, and stinky
Tilly! Here, the tried-and-tested formula
is to feature a handful of very extreme examples, such as unusually
large families on benefits. Some participants are likely sourced from
tabloid news stories or from earlier appearances on the Jeremy Kyle Show
and guaranteed to make the viewers' blood boil. And, of course, the
implicit suggestion is that all recipients of benefits are work-shy
scroungers living the high life at the taxpayers' expense. It would
seem that some viewers knew what to expect and had organised a petition
with around 3,000 names which were sent to Channel five in advance of
transmission, demanding that the episode not be screened. The root of
this phenomenon, I chronicled in my book, Chavs - The Demonization of
the Working Class. I wanted to challenge the mantra that dominated
the '90s and early noughties, that "we're all middle class now" - to
quote Tony Blair. And that the old working class had vanished and all
that was left was a feckless rump living on so-called "sink estates".
And it was the word "chav" which was supposed to sum this class up. The
term "chav" is itself heavily contested. Originating from the
Romani word for child, "chavi", there has also been a number of
"backronyms" invented to sum up its meaning, such as Council Housed And
Violent, Council Housed And Vulgar. And, of course, it is used
exclusively against people from a working-class background, with many
unpleasant connotations - fecklessness, tackiness, bigotry,
having multiple children with multiple partners, anti-social
behaviour, and so on. Disturbingly, a study in 2011 by polling company
BritainThinks, found that those people who identified themselves as
middle class increasingly used the term "working class" as a pejorative
word with the same connotations as "chav". I wanted to examine
everything from the poor-baiting of the tabloids to the obvious
political opportunism which resulted. And to look at the role
television played in stoking the chav myth. Obviously, early examples
of TV chav types were comedian Harry Enfield's Wayne and Waynetta Slob.
And, of course, programmes such as the Jeremy Kyle Show, where the
dysfunctional, troubled lives of people from largely poor backgrounds
were served up as "aren't they awful" entertainment. Here is a
brief, and not untypical, excerpt from Kyle's programme displaying
what one judge described as "human bear-baiting".
Are you close to your daughter? No. You didn't bring her up, did you?
No. Auntie Dawn brought you up. This
story gets more concerning. Dawn's on The Jeremy Kyle Show! You're a
liar! I've done everything for that baby.
You've brought nothing. You've brought nothing. It's a lie. I told
you to buy a bottle. Don't swear it.
A blue bottle for a boy and pink for a girl.
I went away for five days, and what do you do?
And you were jumping in bed... I'm a tramp? We're trying to bring
them kids up. I couldn't care less! I brought ten kids up. I don't give
two huffs by the end of it, Jason! Unsurprisingly, many - myself
included - have questioned the cynical agenda of this series. The
reason I'm addressing you tonight is I feel there has recently been a
step change. That on television, not only have these similar chav
caricatures increased but they have now replaced accurate
representations of everyday working-class people. And these
working people are becoming invisible. This should be a cause
for concern not just for programme-makers, but for all of us
who believe that no viewers deserve to have their - supposed lives
marginalised or singled out for public ridicule. So, I ask you this
- why is it increasingly difficult to find honest portrayals of
working-class people on television? What has encouraged this
increasingly toxic atmosphere which seems to surround vast swathes of
Britain's population? While previous Labour governments have not been
blameless, since the Coalition came to power in 2010, there has been a
more determined effort to slash the welfare state. Benefits that go to
working people, disabled people and unemployed people alike have been
cut back. Politicians of the right and left have casually spoken about
skivers and strivers, of the work-shy hiding behind curtains, of
the unemployed getting more benefits than people in work. Little of it is
based in fact. But it seems to me that this offers a licence to
programme-makers who may wish to make more sensationalist programmes.
There has been an accompanying barrage of media coverage,
intentionally hunting down the most extreme, shocking examples of
so-called "scroungers", passing them off as though they are just the tip
of the iceberg. Most damaging has been television's recent wave of
so-called "poverty porn" documentaries. Curiously, the term
seems first to have become prevalent in 2009 when describing the
beautifully filmed squalor of the Mumbai slums in Danny Boyle's
award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Nearer home, the term
seems to be shorthand for documentaries which airbrush out the
tough realities of the poor, to substitute them with sensationalist,
extreme caricatures. I assume the "porn" element is supposed to
suggest the guilty pleasures to be had from viewers looking down on
these "entertaining" figures of ridicule. Channel 4's Skint is a
case in point. It was sold as an observational documentary centred on
a community living on the Westcliff estate in Scunthorpe as they
attempted to get by on benefits. It turned out to be a particularly
unpleasant piece of voyeurism. From the chummily patronising commentary
delivered in a Northern accent by Finchy from the comedy The Office,
the stereotypes come thick and fast. 'If you're unemployed and want
money, it comes from one of two places, 'the Social or a bit on the
side.' Most people just sign on or are on the dole or sell drugs.
People get roped into it, don't they?
It's an easy thing to do. If you sign on and haven't got money, if
you sell drugs, it's an easy way out. It's just sitting on your cars
and selling. 'If you're not into selling drugs,
phones or shoplifting, there's just your benefits to get by on.
'There's people think you're loaded if you're claiming for a big family.
'The more kids you have, the more money you get, that's for sure. 'But
it still don't go very far.' Skint...
Predictably, the series' bleak mix of crime, broken homes and drugs
earned it the title "The Real Shameless". Here, once again,
exaggerated, fictional television characters are portrayed as
apparently real stereotypes by lazy, tabloid media. Channel 4's long
running series Shameless is not, like Skint, some straightforward
case of the privileged mocking those without power. Its creator, Paul
Abbott, had a turbulent childhood as a working-class boy in Burnley, and
originally intended the series to be a gritty, semi-autobiographical
drama. It was transformed into a comedy with larger-than-life
characters. For example, one of the main characters develops into a
bright university student. But with each successive series, it has
become cruder in portrayal, especially when the spotlight falls
on the notorious antihero of the series, Frank Gallagher.
Tickets this way for the Chatsworth Express Come and watch pikeys making
a mess Of the lives they were given by him upstairs And kids they're
convinced aren't actually theirs What sounds on Earth could ever
replace Kids needing money, or wives in your face?
Cos this, people reckon, and me included Is why pubs and drugs were
kindly invented To calm us all down, stop us going mental.
These are Chatsworth Estate's basic essentials.
Me, I'm worth every penny for grinding your axes.
You sheet on our heads, but you pay the taxes!
Amusing? Perhaps. But the Frank Gallagher character has been used by
various newspapers as the poster boy for Britain's feckless poor. Abbott
would be appalled, but Gallagher has probably been quite effective in
influencing public support for recent welfare cuts. It seems to me
that some TV producers, perhaps unthinkingly, have fallen in line
with a broader political agenda, helping fuel support for the
slashing of the welfare state by demonising its "undeserving"
recipients. The fact that most social security spending goes on
pensioners who've paid in all their lives...
That most working-age benefits go to people actually in work, and that
there are 6.5 million people chasing full-time work in this country...
Well, you'd never think this, watching these increasingly shrill
and extreme reality TV shows. And so, TV has helped harden popular
attitudes towards the poorest in the country. And this at a time when the
political elite are implementing policies that, according to the
Child Poverty Action Group, will drive over a million children into
poverty. But what does the term "working class" mean in Britain
today? Throughout the '90s and the noughties, the mantra - again, thank
you, Tony - "we're all middle class now". That the old working class had
vanished, because they'd all pulled themselves up by the bootstraps.
Except, of course, for a few feckless types splashing out their
benefits on widescreen TV sets... That is, when they weren't voting
for the BNP. One of the stock arguments is that the working class
had vanished with the old industries. But what we really saw
was a dramatic shift from an industrial working class to a
service-sector working class. Today there's far more part-time and
zero-hour workers and many will have to jump from job to job in the same
year. They're often blighted with poverty pay, with millions having to
have their wages topped up with tax credits. But these people are all
but invisible on television. The reality of their lives is rarely
seen. There's also been a lot of talk about an "underclass", a
dehumanising term. Right-wing American political scientist Charles
Murray defined the "underclass" as a "new rabble" that had been created
by the collapse in the family and demanded economic penalties for
single mothers. Murray's theories received a warm welcome from
sections of the British right and clearly influenced the debate here.
Almost by definition, people who might be characterised by others as
being the so-called "underclass" may simply be suffering pressures and
difficulties of an acute kind. Here's a short excerpt from the BBC
documentary series, People Like Us, which focused on a struggling group
of locals from the North Manchester suburb of Harpurhey.
'Nicola is a single parent to one-year-old Crystal and tonight,
her mum is supposed to be baby-sitting.' Have you seen a book
in my house? We can't read or write, we don't know where to send it to
you, the book is going in the bin. Do what you want...
Me mam's got a personality where she changes. She's not a very nice
person to get along with. No. Hey, Nicola!
What? You left a parcel behind. Get her
ready for bed. She's grown bigger this time.
Make sure she's got a clean nappy and put her in bed.
Why should you get out early and leave the child to us? I don't think
so, we've got things to do. Have you now?
Yeah, we do. And what's that? Not sitting in here all night
baby-sitting. I'm not baby-sitting.
Get her ready, get her jammies on and settle her down and I'll
baby-sit. That's too much!
What do you mean, "That's too much"? Why can't you baby-sit my child
until I go out? You should wear a condom.
Uncomfortable viewing from People Like Us.
Was it properly explained to the people of Harpurhey what the effect
of welcoming cameras in to their homes might be? And that
unemployment, drug-taking and anti-social behaviour would become
the focus of the series? As it was, some 200 Harpurhey residents
attended what was an angry meeting when the first series aired. Their
complaint was that People Like Us gave a "biased and distorted" view
of the area. Also that local children were being bullied in
school as a result of the programme. And even that people had pulled out
of buying houses there as a result. A local council worker, Richard
Searle, whose daughter appeared on the programme, argued that, "The BBC
should not be propagating this harmful and misleading image of the
working class". But how do you define what working
class is? My view is an old-fashioned one. It's those who
have to work for someone else in order to live. And they don't have
control over the work that they do. I think that's most people, whether
you're a supermarket worker, nurse or secretary. It also includes
workers driven into unemployment because of a lack of jobs. What's
interesting is the number of people who identify themselves as
working-class has remained stubbornly the same, however much
the mantra of "we're all middle class" has been drummed into people.
A study by the polling group BritainThinks suggested that people
looked at class through the prism of culture. When asked to come up with
a symbol of being middle class, some suggested...the cafetiere. There's a
popular sense that, for example, you read a tabloid newspaper or watch
soaps, well, you're working class. If you listen to Radio 4 and read
The Times, you're middle class. We may wish to be classless but it
seems that we Brits still get our vowels and our knickers in a twist
when the subject arises. The BBC launched their online Class
Calculator earlier this year after surveying 161,000 people. The
suggestion was that the existing upper, middle and working class
divisions no longer reflected modern British occupations or lifestyles.
The survey suggested that there were now seven groupings, including new
additions such as the "precariat" - roughly speaking, the financially
insecure proletariat. Public interest was such that an
astonishing six million of us used the calculator to find our place in
society. It also seems that television series on class come like
buses, in threes, as if acknowledging our anxieties.
Recently, noted Corporation chin-strokers such as Melvin Bragg
and Andrew Neil considered the subject, respectively, in Class And
Culture and Posh And Posher. But when Paul O'Grady tackled the
working class in his recent compelling series, the word "class"
was perversely removed from the title by anxious executives, leaving
it emasculated as Paul O'Grady's Working Britain. Fascinatingly, it
would fall to a self-proclaimed "transvestite potter" to playfully
tease out some the differences in British class, using taste as the
key. Everything about Sunderland you just
love. The history as well. Our mining history, the shipyards'
history, what's all gone now, but we're still living the tradition. My
dad's still a coalminer to this day. What else does Sunderland got to be
proud of apart from the football now? Well, the heritage...
That's the past. Yeah, well, we're proud as we're
still here. We're still all together. We might have nothing now,
but we've still got this kind of generosity what we did have in the
old days. Is that the industry, generosity, you think?
And call centres, know what I mean?! Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson
Perry there getting among the people.
Perry seemed to be equally intrigued by tattooed lads from Sunderland as
mansion dwellers in the Cotswolds. Somehow, by taking a less dogmatic
and a more open cultural route, he managed not to patronise those he
met and also to celebrate the diversity of British class. But I'm
not sure that the truth about class isn't more brutal. I think class is
ultimately about wealth and power, and where you are in the pecking
order. An aristocrat who watches the X Factor is still an aristocrat. The
postal worker who goes to the opera is still working class. And it seems
to me that now, the poorer sections of society and the working class
certainly don't have the power to influence how they are portrayed on
television. Was there ever a time when working-class lives, in all
their complexities, not only found expression on television but also
gripped the nation's viewers? If there was a mythic golden age, it
was precipitated in the late '50s and early '60s by kitchen sink
dramas such as Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving and A Taste Of Honey which
were then progressing from play or novel to feature film. Television
would be just a beat behind this vanguard. But by the early '60s,
vibrant working-class voices would be making themselves heard properly
on TV for the first time. Of course, the years after World War II had
already rung the changes in British society. A majority Labour
government demonstrated its belief in collective solutions to deal with
social problems which weren't regarded as the fault of the
individual. And, crucially, there was a strong and growing trade union
movement to represent working people. It was only a matter of time
before this once invisible class, and their stories, would appear on
television, in number. In 1960, a new 13-part drama series, made by a
north of England company called Granada Television for the fledgling
ITV channel would have a seismic effect on the box. Here were the
lives of sympathetically portrayed, three-dimensional working-class
characters on screen for the first time.
Did you go down to the labour today? I'm not due till tomorrow. You just
don't want work! Did you see the adverts in the
newspapers? What papers? We only get the one in
the morning and there's nothing in that. You could've gone to the
reading room. Here am I working myself to death and you can't even
look at a newspaper. What sort of job would they have for me?
There's plenty of jobs for them that look for them.
They ask you want experience you've had.
You've had experience. Not the right kind.
Just drop it, will you? No, I won't. It's the same every time.
Look, you know why I can't get a job! You've been out of that place
seven weeks now. Oh, don't let's wrap it up. If you
mean prison, say it, everyone else does.
You can't go on like this. What am I supposed to do?
Tell me that. Why did it have to be me who had a son like you?
The matriarchal majesty of Elsie Tanner there, as played by Pat
Phoenix. Despite initial concerns Coronation Street might be just too
dull, the series quickly became a phenomenon, and for many years, was
the most popular programme on British television. Its creator,
Tony Warren, had initially contacted the BBC about the series. But he
heard nothing back. Hardly surprising, given that Auntie was
viewed as largely middle class and a source of "improving" television.
ITV, of course, was looked down upon as the home of less-improving
working-class entertainment. Some 50 years later, soaps still offer the
largest number of supposed working-class characters on
television. But it's debatable whether this microcosm of
shopkeepers, cafe owners and pub landlords truly represents the
beleaguered British working class of 2013. And the increasingly
hysterical story lines in EastEnders and the like suggest that
ratings-chasing is much more important than creating any social
truth within the drama. Although the BBC could get fidgety about class,
from the early '60s and then for the next couple of decades and beyond,
the Corporation would go on to create numerous classic comedy
series, often based on working-class figures.
Come on, sit down. Where's my machine? It'll be all right now. All
right, here we go! Done it at last. Now, we're off and running.
I don't believe it! Oh, you wish to become a blood
doner? -- donor. I certainly do. I've been thinking about this for a
long time. Something for the benefit of the country as a whole. "What
should I be?" I thought. "Become a blood doner or join the Young
Conservatives?" Think of all the great stags of the
past. Think of all the lads whose memory you're letting down. Think of
Bob Shearer who went to the wrong church. And Tony Charles who was
sick in the vestry. John Webb and the stomach pump. Was that in vain?
More fool them! I'll be quite frank with you, Dad.
I'm not prepared to go on living in a house without a bathroom. I don't
think you realise how degrading it is. It's uncivilised. Cor blimey,
the Greeks had baths 2,000 years ago!
And that's only a snapshot. More often than not, these sitcoms were
scripted, unsurprisingly, by working-class writers. For example,
Steptoe And Son was created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. John
Sullivan wrote Only Fools And Horses and Carla Lane began a celebrated
career writing on The Liver Birds. And this from within a rather
middle-class organisation. The BBC seemed at once nervous of, and
trying to do the right thing by, a working class which its management
sometimes didn't seem to fully understand. But the sound of
laughter seemed to soften the divisions of class. A couple of
years ago, Danny Cohen, then Controller of BBC ONE, said he
thought there were too many middle-class sitcoms and not enough
working-class ones. It was obvious he was looking wistfully over his
shoulder to this golden age for blue-collar comedy. You might say
that working-class comedy was the Trojan horse left in the car park at
the old Television Centre. But the BBC of the '60s was still under the
influence of the Reithian mantra which promised to "educate, inform
and entertain". So, the Corporation could also prove to be an incubator
for gritty, issue-based working-class drama. Again, the
background of its key creators was crucial. The doors of the BBC opened
to a phalanx of bright, working-class young men, and it did
seem to be mostly men, who worked their way up the Corporation to
become writers, directors or producers. The list is as long as it
is impressive, including luminaries such as Tony Garnett, Ken Loach,
Dennis Potter and Alan Clarke. These were just some of the committed
film-makers at the BBC who were unafraid to court controversy,
grabbing both headlines and great reviews. Their work would likely
appear on The Wednesday Play or later, Play For Today. Occasionally,
as with the celebrated Cathy Come Home, watched by 12 million viewers,
the drama might even lead to questions in Parliament. Something
almost unthinkable now. By the late '70s, the openings for ideologically
committed dramatists were narrowing. But that didn't mean that the
powerful possibilities of the so-called "teleplay" had diminished.
A case in point is The Spongers. Written by Jim Allen and first
transmitted in 1978, it looks back on the Jubilee of '77. As producer
Tony Garnett recalled, he and Allen had decided that, as the BBC was
bound to indulge in, "an orgy of loyal sentimentality" during the
Silver Jubilee, they thought they would make their own contribution to
the celebrations. # And as the time goes by. # You
stay by my side... From the Council. Oh, blimey,
trouble. Mrs Crosby, actually, I'm a certificated bailiff.
I've come to... You are Mrs Crosby? Yeah. There's ?262 owing, I must
advise that I've got to collect this now.
I haven't got it. ?262. I haven't got it.
Mmmm...subversive. Avoiding didacticism and stereotype, director
Roland Joffe's camera follows single mother of four, Pauline, as she
struggles to survive on dwindling state benefits. A subject as
relevant now as it was then. Now, you're in trouble with your
rent arrears. With my what? Rent arrears.
Yes, that's right. The bailiffs are... Yes, you're owing...
?262? And if I don't pay it, they'll take
away my furniture. What has been happening to the rent
allowance we've been paying you each week? We pay you money. Your rent is
calculated, as part of your allowance. And you seem to be
spending it on other things, yes? You try keeping a home and three
kids on what I get. I bet you couldn't manage it. You should have
a try. But that's not the point, Mrs Crosby.
We've been paying the rent and we expect it to be spent on that. That
is the point cos I'd rather feed them than pay the rent and it's only
two weeks. That's probably because you're a bad
manager. Surely you should be able to do it. I can't, I'm sorry, I just
need more money. Despite the bleakness of the
mother's situation, the unfolding drama and the sense of injustice
still grips us. Perhaps we could have a little more
of this in 2013, please? The Spongers went on to win one of the
most prestigious of television awards, the Prix Italia. By the
early '80s, the political left was on the back foot and the era of the
committed drama seemed to be drawing to a close, with one notable
exception. The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher took over
government in 1979 and by 1982, unemployment had climbed to a
then-astonishing three million. Then the catchphrases on everyone's lips
were "Gi's a job!" And "I can do that!" The source was a desperate,
unemployed character called Yosser Hughes who appeared in writer Alan
Bleasdale's five-part elegy for the working man, Boys From The
Blackstuff. Apart from Yosser, Bleasdale adeptly created a variety
of working-class characters, each with their own opinions.
Give me a job as a start. I could do that.
Look, there is a bit of work for plasterers at the moment. Oh,
yeah(?) So, how come you're here on ?14 a day?
I'm blacklisted. You're blacklisted? What for?
I start strikes. Not a bad reason.
I'm also in the WRP. Didn't we use to have them during
the war(?) Tin hats and gas masks and knock at your door if you didn't
draw your curtains(!) The Workers Revolutionary Party.
Oh, aye, I remember them. They were at our factory gates the day we
closed down. Full of brotherly love and "fight the good fight" and all
of that. We still closed down, though.
Yeah, but Snowy's different, aren't you, Snowy? No the same as all those
others in that Workers Revolutionary Party. Right, that, innit? You're
the only one who's working class. The Boys From The Blackstuff, which
struck a nerve and found large audiences in 1982. Where once The
Boys From The Blackstuff or The Spongers seemed to be part of the
television ecology, now such dramas seem as rare as hen's teeth. What
producers of the '60s and '70s understood was that there was some
kind of moral obligation for television to show healthy and
constructive class portrayals. This stemmed from the prevailing
faith in television's transformative power in its early days. Producers
were aware of television's capacity to shape society and to shine a
light on the issues that affected parts of that society. Often their
audiences may not necessarily have been familiar with these issues but
they still came to the plays in large numbers. Here it might be
appropriate to yoke together two cliches. "Television is a powerful
medium" and "With great power, comes great responsibility". By the early
'80s, some trends suggested some erosion in this belief in collective
responsibility. Television producers would turn increasingly to what were
known as "cops, docs and frocks". Cop shows, documentaries and costume
dramas, a formula which still seems prevalent today. My impression is
now, in contrast to the numbers of working class people who entered the
television industry in the '60s, '70s and '80s, is that such
opportunities have shrunk. It now seems that it's largely those young
people who are supported by the Bank of Mum and Dad who can afford unpaid
internships in the industry. Anecdotally, this feels true, but
don't take my word for it. At the end of last year a survey by the
British Academy of Film and Television Arts found that young
people were being needlessly discouraged from pursuing a career
in television. I quote: "With talented young people from lower
socioeconomic backgrounds, and women, "at particular risk of being
lost". This serious imbalance means that not only is creativity lost to
the industry, it also means that the likelihood of truthful, first-hand
portrayals of working-class life are less likely, no matter how
well-meaning, say, middle-class programme makers may be. It also
means that empathy for those less fortunate may be in short supply. Is
it a healthy television culture which treats its sometimes
disadvantaged members, such as Britain's travelling community, as
if they are a strange breed to be prodded through the bars of their
cages? My Gypsy Christening is the latest offering in Channel 4's
long-running series on Gypsy life. And once again, it seems that
travellers old and young are there to be patronised.
'For many Travellers, the subject of childbirth is strictly off-limits,
even among adults. 'Sex education is almost unheard of and instead,
Naisha has been taught to think of babies as consumer goods.' Where do
babies come from? My mum goes into the hospital and
buys the baby. And Jesus brings it there and then me mam goes and picks
it up and gives the doctors the money and then brings it back home.
Are babies expensive? Yeah. Thousands of pounds.
One of the most powerful challenges to this prevailing narrative was
BBC's Poor Kids, which offered a less patronising insight into the
lives of a handful of the 3.5 million children growing up in
poverty in one of the world's richest nations. As the programme
billing noted, these children were "under-represented, under-nourished
and often under the radar". Here was a platform for the children
themselves, allowing them to communicate their own experiences in
their own words. SHE SINGS: # My mummy's got no
money. # My mummy's got no money. # At all At all.
'The gap between rich and poor in the UK is now wider than at any time
since the Second World War.' It doesn't get any better.
It gets worser and worser as the days go on.
'We asked four children to show us what life is really like growing up
in Britain today below the poverty line.' Shopping, debt.
Shopping, debt. Shopping, debt, shopping debt, shopping debt,
shopping, debt. There's all sorts of things that
happen bad around here in my life. Money is the main priority. I always
worry about it. A more considered take on Poor Kids.
It'd be easy, but facile, to claim that the reality of working-class
Britain has been entirely driven from our TV screens, that the
programmes which remain have simply become modern versions of the
medieval stocks, there for us to pelt their subjects with our
disapproval. But it would be unfair, too. When Big Brother launched in
the UK in 2000, it had a revolutionary quality about it - a
social experiment using a multi-camera set-up to observe 11
strangers crammed into a house for several weeks. Of course, it quickly
became a genre of TV that hunted down the extreme, the freakish and
the unsympathetic for our supposed entertainment. But Channel 4's
latest multi-camera reality show, Educating Yorkshire, provided a
much-welcome development in the genre. Here were teachers and
students in an everyday community in Dewsbury, getting by and trying to
do their best. This was astute, dedicated programme-making. Using 64
cameras and editing down 2,000 hours of film rushes, the end result was
an often moving series which allowed viewers to empathise with these
young people as they prepared themselves for adult life.
BELL RINGS Come on, people, get moving, please!
I came to this school knowing exactly what I wanted to achieve.
Yes, improve exam results. Yes, make behaviour better.
You cheeky bitch. But the most important thing for me is that
alongside everything else we give them, they walk out of here as
decent human beings who are ready for the world and if that doesn't
happen, we have failed them. Stop crying, you moangy bugger.
'But when you deal with teenagers, life's never straightforward.' Did
you stamp on his head? I don't know, I might have done.
Right, thank you. 'We filmed over a year to find out
what life is really like in one of our secondary schools.' There comes
a tipping point. I'll have to ask him to leave.
Good. 'For the teachers...' Let's have a
massive year seven hug. '..and the kids...' If he doesn't
apologise, he'll spend the rest of his natural life in detention.
..at the very start of adult life. Do you like my eyebrows? Shaved my
eyebrows off. This may have been a rare, realistic
portrayal of working-class teenagers, but all the more welcome
for it. Importantly, viewers wanted to see Educating Yorkshire in big
numbers. Cumulative figures for some individual episodes reached almost
five million viewers. The irony is that if certain television
executives or journalists are sniffy about programmes predicated on
working-class life, be they documentary or sitcom, they might
not be best judge of what the public will respond to. The theatrical,
scabrous and energetic working-class Irish comedy, Mrs Brown's Boys, was
denounced by critics as being "crass" and "lazy trash". Yet one
episode grabbed an astounding 11 million viewers last Christmas.
Representations of working-class life should be many and various.
Television must be more honest about the portrayal of working people. I'm
not arguing that there aren't bad, difficult things in working class
life, but don't demonise, report accurately and don't make poverty
porn. There are some good programmes out there, but we need to remind
ourselves constantly of the potential pitfalls and the
dishonesty of cynical agendas. So what's the solution? Some might come
away from this and think, "Ah, he wants to swap demonization of the
working class and poor for glorification instead." But that
other extreme, after all, would be to patronise, to turn people living
in poverty into saints and to ignore what can be morally complex,
ambiguous and disturbing problems. That's the last thing I'm calling
for. Rather, it's simply to move away
from focusing on the most extreme and unrepresentative stories and
passing them off as the mainstream. The big problem with, say, Shameless
or On Benefits And Proud, is that there aren't enough counterbalances.
There are ten million people living in social housing in this country,
and yet it seems only dysfunctional residents seem to appear on our TV
screens. We need more television programmes that at least reflect the
reality that most of Britain's poor are in work and still trapped in
poverty, challenging the myth that work is an automatic route out of
poverty. It means exploring the reality of what our welfare state is
- that most of it is actually spent on pensioners who paid in to their
pensions for most of their lives, and that most working-age benefits
go to people in work. It means looking at the desperation of many
unemployed people searching for work, like the 645 people who
applied for a single job as an administrator at Hull University
earlier this year. It surely means providing a platform for those
living in poverty to communicate their own experiences in their own
way, not edited to sensationalise and humiliate. It doesn't mean
pretending that dysfunctional people don't exist, but it surely means
balancing them with a more accurate cross-section of the community. This
would mean a challenge to the dogma that issues like poverty and
unemployment are individual failings, rather than social
problems that should concern all of us. If we want television to provide
a more honest, accurate portrayal of life outside the privileged bubble,
it means cracking open the industry. It risks becoming a closed shop for
those from pampered backgrounds. We need to abolish unpaid internships,
which increasingly mean that only those who can afford to live off
their parents can get a foot in the door. We have to challenge the
growing emphasis on requiring expensive post-graduate
qualifications, which are less and less accessible to those without the
financial means. Now more than ever, we need a new wave of paid
scholarships and traineeships to allow ambitious television producers
of all backgrounds - from Glasgow, Middlesbrough, the Rhondda Valley,
Manchester, wherever, to have a chance to have their stories told.
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your time. Good night.
From Little Britain's Vicky Pollard to the Jeremy Kyle Show to toxic documentaries on 'feckless scroungers' - writer and broadcaster Owen Jones argues that this growing strain of malevolent British TV programming denigrates the working class. Increasingly, it seems that poor and everyday working people have become invisible onscreen as producers opt to show more extreme stereotypes instead.
The RTS Huw Wheldon Lecture commemorates one of the most inspiring programme makers and television managers of his era - Sir Huw Wheldon - and is specifically about a key aspect of contemporary programme making. Owen Jones, who frequently appears on political programmes, is the author of the bestseller Chavs - The Demonisation of the Working Class.