Totally Shameless – How TV Portrays the Working Class
By Owen Jones
What I want to focus on tonight is the fact that 2013 is definitely not a good time to be working class or poor on television. And more than that, I want to know when did it become acceptable to denigrate working class people on television and to simply replace a whole section of British society with ugly stereotypes?
I suppose it would have been about a decade ago, when this unapologetic shrillness in the criticism of the poorer end of society really sank in.
I remember one particular judgement being delivered by an Oxford student, in a crisp, well-spoken English accent: a young man loudly berating “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 that 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 come to engross me. I was shocked 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 out of 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 parts of society.
Take, for example, a recent three-part Channel 5 series. Each episode is entitled as follows: Shoplifters And Proud, Pick Pockets And Proud and, completing the seemingly criminal trilogy, On Benefits And Proud.
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 all guaranteed to make the viewer’s blood boil.
And, of course, the implicit suggestion is that all recipients of benefit are workshy 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 5 in advance of transmission demanding this episode not be screened.
The root of all this was a phenomenon I chronicled in my book, Chavs – The Demonization of the Working Class. I wanted to challenge the mantra that dominated the Nineties 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 name 'Chav' itself is a term which is 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 or 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 BritainThinks found that those people who identified themselves as middle class increasingly treated 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.
Obvious 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.
Unsurprisingly, many – myself included - have questioned the cynical agenda of this series. The reason I’m addressing you tonight is that 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 on fact.
But, it seems to me, this offers a license 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 movie, 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, but 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 came thick and fast. 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, but initially had nuances. 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 anti-hero of the series, Frank Gallagher.
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 to it 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.
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 Nineties and the Noughties, the mantra – again, thank you Tony - was '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 who were 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 is 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 by 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, for example, defined the 'underclass' as a 'new rabble' that had been created by the collapse in the family. He 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.
Earlier this year the BBC 3 documentary series, People Like Us, focused on a struggling group of locals from the North Manchester suburb of Harpurhey. 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 series first aired. Their complaint was that People Like Us gave a "biased and distorted" view of the area and that local children were being bullied at 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 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.
And what's interesting is that 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 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 if, for example, you read a tabloid newspaper or watch soaps 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 along like buses – in threes, as if acknowledging our anxieties. Recently, noted corporation chin-strokers such as Melvyn 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’ Grayson Perry to playfully tease out some of the differences in British class, using taste as the key in his Channel 4 series, All in the Best Possible Taste. 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; a postal worker who goes to the opera is still working-class.
And it seems to me that nowadays the working class and the poorer sections of society 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 complexity, 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 Fifties and early Sixties 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 wrung 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.
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 onscreen for the first time.
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, café 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.
Titles like Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe And Son, Only Fools And Horses are 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 all 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 1, 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 era 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 Sixties was still under the influence of the Reithian mantra which promised to "educate, inform and entertain."
So the Corporation would 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 into the corporation to become writers, directors or producers.
The list is as long as it is impressive, including such luminaries 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. This is 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 was The Spongers. Written by Jim Allen and first transmitted in 1978, it looks back on the jubilee of 1977.
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.
Avoiding didacticism and stereotype, director Roland Joffee’s camera follows single mother of four, Pauline, as she struggles to survive on dwindling state benefits. The subject is as relevant today as it was then.
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. This 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.
The catch phrases on everyone’s lips were “Gizza 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.
Aside from Yosser, Bleasedale adeptly created a variety of working class characters, each with their own opinions. Boys from the Blackstuff struck a nerve and found large audiences in 1982.
Where once Boys from the Blackstuff or The Spongers seemed to be part of the television ecology, nowadays such dramas seem as rare as hen’s teeth.
What producers of the 60s and the 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 powers in its early days. Producers were aware of television’s capacity to shape society and to shine a light on the issues which 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 clichés. “Television is a powerful medium” and “With great power, comes great responsibility”.
By the early 80s, new trends suggested some erosion in this belief in collective responsibility. Television producers would turn increasingly to what was known as "cops, docs and frocks" – in other words, cop shows, documentaries and costume dramas. This formula still seems prevalent today.
My impression is that nowadays – in contrast to the numbers of working-class people who entered the TV industry in the 60s, 70s and 80s - 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 Bafta found that young people were being “needlessly” discouraged from pursuing a career in television.
I quote: “With talented young people from lower socio-economic 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 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 Big Fat Gipsy Christening is the latest offering in Channel 4’s long-running series on gipsy life. And once again, it seems that travellers old and young are there to be patronised.
One of the most powerful challenges to this prevailing narrative was BBC 1’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.
It'd be easy, but facile, to claim that the reality of working-class Britain has been entirely driven from our TV screens and that the programmes which remain have simply become the modern version 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, proved to be a welcome development in the genre. Here were teachers and students in an everyday school in a working-class community in Dewsbury, getting by and trying to do their best.
This was astute, dedicated programme-making. Using 64 cameras and editing down 2000 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.
This may have been a rare, realistic portrayal of working-class teenagers, but all the more welcome for it. And, importantly, viewers wanted to see Educating Yorkshire in big numbers. Cumulative figures for some individual episodes reached almost 5 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 eleven 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 is the solution? Some might come away from this and think – ah, he wants to swap demonisation of the working class and the 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 those 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 dysfunctional people do not 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 concern us all.
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 or wherever to have a chance to have their stories told.