Totally Shameless: How TV Portrays the Working Class Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture

Totally Shameless: How TV Portrays the Working Class

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


kids. Sophie.


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.

:38:40.:38:48. 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.

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