Media: Time to act like common people

TV drama should stop showing the working class as just victims or villains.
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The Independent Culture
IMAGES OF the historical upper class and the contemporary underclass have been captured in British movies of late. Class on the big screen has become synonymous with ladies in crinolines and lads on crack.

But where are the films that cast the working class as neither homeless victims, nor nouveau riche villains living in a house that smack bought?

The names of Ken Loch and Mike Leigh are first out of the hat, and yet Secrets And Lies hardly rates as an everyday slice of Nineties Social Realism: A white woman has a black daughter, an outside lavatory, and the most extreme screen example of a working class home since Hilda Ogden hung a "muriel".

The answer should lie with television and particularly the BBC, currently taking baby steps to put drama back to the place it found it, in the halcyon days of The Wednesday Play. According to a recent issue of Broadcast, the network is in search of more "working class series".

In an attempt to prove that the Beeb's comedy output is not confined to middle-class lads and vicars, the department has lined up Caroline Aherne's sit-com depicting life in a Northern working class household, The Royle Family.

Although it is doubtful that this will address touchy issues of race and country that continue to crop up in working class conversation.

BBC drama, meanwhile, has high hopes for a series on the lower classes entitled Births, Marriages, Deaths.

This is a departure from the current form where the social orbit of domestic dramas is entirely middle-class. The only window into the World Of The British Working Class is via cop series and the soap opera.

The Guardian columnist Linda Grant wrote recently that "the soap opera survives as the only real relevant and popular form of television drama" But neither Coronation Street nor EastEnders are relevant or representative. Weatherfield is a fossilised neverworld. Life in Albert Square is what Gary Bushell dismisses as "a liberal fantasy".

The genre has become part cartoon, part morality play. Each week these ensembles stagger through new storylines lifted from old headlines: surrogacy, drugs, date rape, gang warfare, incest. By comparison the "loose woman versus nosey neighbour" doorstep battles, from early Coronation Street episodes, drip with authenticity.

Similar is true of the slice-of-life drama from the Fifties, in which the working class were first taken from below stairs and put on the box. "Good, honest, fumbling people caught up in tiny tragedies" was how scriptwriter Ted Willis described Dixon Of Dock Green and the working class characters in the films Holiday Camp and No Trees In Our Street.

The best description of the work of Ted Willis comes from his account of an affair between a young middle class secretary and a husband of a working class housewife in A Woman In A Dressing Gown: "A group of human beings in the grip of an unrecognisable situation," he said. This remains an apt guideline for TV drama nowadays, but is more appropriate to docu- soaps.

Despite realism more dodgy than dirty, since the accusations of set-up scenes, this phenomenon did at last get the producers thinking.

They were worried that soap opera would not be able to compete. If so, the solution is not to crank up the histrionics in soaps. The appeal of docu-soaps is in the public recognising the language and the characters once found in TV drama.

Last year, when Peter Ansorge left as Head Of Drama at Channel Four, he claimed that the BBC were churning out too many derivative detective series in order to compete with ITV drama.

He recalled the Sixties era of Cathy Come Home, and cited Yosser Hughes and his mates in the Eighties' Boys From The Blackstuff as being "part of a culture that placed human drama at the centre of storytelling, with their speech rooted confidently in recognisable characters and credible dialogue."

Television may have had its fill of plot-led crime series as a peg to hang working class characters as villains, but the issue-based dramas which cast them solely as victims pulls into a similar cul-de-sac. When Ken Loach brought Cathy Come Home to the small screen in the Sixties, its verite style and the central performance by Carol White highlighted the plight of the homeless.

It was first past the post in dealing with this subject, in this style, in television drama.

The form has now slipped into parody. Backstreet abortion was the issue that was to single out Loache's adaptation of Neil Dunn's book Up The Junction. Between the hard men and the hard times, the crude camera work and the use of monologue and flashback revealed the lives of two young sisters as vibrant, humorous, and ultimately optimistic. Nowadays, if there is any wit, aspiration, or pursuit of glamour in the lives of working class characters it is a hidden extra, concealed between drug deals, bank jobs and visits to dysfunctional families.

Not since Northerners donned their cloth caps and dragged their clogs down cobbled streets has a section of society stirred the creative juices of writers with a social conscience.

What's it got? It's got the lot: drugs, homelessness, alcohol, prostitution and abuse. This is part of the story of the British Working class in the Nineties but not the whole.

By representing it as such the issue became so commonplace as to be invisible, and the plot and character as formulaic as a soap. If Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth succeeds as a story of a South London family characterised by the problems of domestic violence, drugs and drink it is perhaps the autobiographical input of the author that confirms a realistic portrayal.

The same is true of Richard Billington's fly-on-the-wall photos at last year's sensation exhibition, capturing the squalor and alcoholism of everyday lives.

Cast as the leading man in Nil By Mouth, Ray Winstone is to have the main part in Births, Marriages And Deaths.

It is a boy's own story revealing the ups and downs in the lives of three likely lads from London's East End. Will it take its cue from the style championed by the BBC's Our Friends In The North?

If so, we can expect an everyday tale of zelig-like characters, who find themselves on the fringe of every defining pop, cultural or political moment of the last three decades from skiffle music to secondary picketing via foreign war zones.

Or the BBC could surprise us by returning to the kitchen sink, going back to the drawing board, and re-discovering what Ted Willis called "the marvellous world of the ordinary".

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