Grace Dent on TV: People Like Us

The only thing missing is a Benedict Cumberbatch cameo. But could he take a shift in the Wishy Washy?

I fell slightly in love with People Like Us, an upbeat fly-on-the-wall show about the decidedly poor Harpurhey estate in Manchester, from the moment I met Karen from the Wishy Washy laundrette. Brassy, slightly belligerent, warm and wise, Karen contradicts the tedious formulaic television thinkpieces churned out each time a producer makes something like People Like Us, which first appeared during the Scottish Bafta-award-winning documentary series The Scheme.

The phrase “poverty porn” is waved about with a lot of hand-wringing waffle about how, essentially, we should never film the working classes and if we do, must never enjoy the footage; in fact, we should spend the time more fruitfully in a haircloth shirt, poking ourselves in the eye. Because if the footage is truthful and gritty – in fact exactly like what I see everyday with my own eyes – then it's stigmatising and apparently inaccurate. Or if it's warm and full of heart, like People Like Us, then it's patronising the “salt of the earth” types. And if it pulls away from the heaviest issues – food banks, alcoholism, social-service swoops –then it's dull and sanitised, but when it sharp-focuses on harsh events, well, ta-dah, it's “poverty porn”. Actually let's not bother at all. Let's have another series of C4's Notting Hill. Or Made in Chelsea. Or one of those shows where two white middle-class men go on a wine-tasting course in Cape Cod.

Flying in the face of this introspection, I rather love that the characters in People Like Us sit about watching Jeremy Kyle, being wholly judgemental about both Kyle's case studies and also the sort of people who watch Jeremy Kyle. “I only watch the morning episode,” one man says proudly. “There's folk round this area who sit and wait for the repeat on ITV2 at lunchtime, then they watch it again.”

Karen from the Wishy Washy is a study in formidability. She sits in her lint- and fabric-conditioner-scented kingdom surveying CCTV footage of a local OAP who sometimes pops in the laundrette to hoist down her elastic waisted trousers and wee in the waste bin. “She actually wipes herself! I think it was a wee, Paul emptied the bin and he said it were heavy,” Karen grimaces. A spate of thefts have made Karen adamant about not decorating the place, “Look, they're even taking me Bono from U2!” she says, pointing at footage of a man packing a bin-liner with underpants, socks and some framed pictures off the wall.

Elsewhere, on Harpurhey market, rotund 19-year-old ladies' magnet Jamie is having problems with his harem of women, many of them older than his mother. I'm terrified to look too closely at Jamie lest I too become transfixed with lust. “I want YOU to be my man,” instructs a fearsome stallholder, her loose-change belt seductively nipping a waspish waist in her padded anorak. “I've told my man it's off, and I want you.” Jamie looks slightly ashen. “Uh-huh,” he grunts, clearly struggling to recall what he's promised this woman last week while wearing lager-goggles. Jamie runs a second-hand DVD stall, when he's not breaking hearts.

He has promised his affections to several women. They appear in his mam's living room waving engagement rings, which Jamie likes to dispense when he's drunk, jabbering about futures together that will end abruptly two weeks on Friday with a discovery of infidelity behind the boozer and a row over who gets the Staffy. “What did you think the first time you saw your fiancée?” asks the cameraman. “Big boobs,” says Jamie, honestly, reaching and giving the girl's chest a wobble.

I laughed continuously during People Like Us. It's warm and more-ish. It's not “sympathetic”. No one asked for your sympathy. I rooted heavily for Karen's daughter, glamorous teen Amber, and her plans to escape to London to study drama. When Amber won a place at drama school in Camden my heart was in my mouth imagining her appearance at Euston platform five, alone, no family, no spare cash, relying largely on bolsh and an ability to wing it. This was a beautiful example of the difficulties of modern social mobility. To achieve a tiny percentage of what many of Amber's drama-school counterparts will take for granted, she will work several times harder, sacrificing and risking much more – even the Virgin train ticket to London to see the college would wipe out the average Harpurhey household budget – only to endure Benedict Cumberbatch and his ilk whining that no-one understands the upper-class actor's plight.

Actually, Cumberbatch in Harpurhey is one reality documentary I'd love to watch. Make him do a few shifts in the Wishy Washy, checking the bin for urine and underneath the big dryers pulling out all the lint with a big rake like Karen's boyfriend has to do each week. “It's probably mostly pubes and bum fluff,” Karen says cackling. At the time of writing, Karen's Bono portrait was still missing.

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