Last Night's TV - The Street That Cut Everything, BBC1; Gordon's Great Escape, Channel 4
There is such a thing as society
Tuesday 17 May 2011
The council is such a faceless, nebulous body to most of us. We don't really know who runs it, and we don't really know what it does with our money. Strange to think, then, that it's the only kind of government we have that comes anywhere near to the sort of small-scale, instinctive community work that humans have done since the first of us stood up straight, the most direct and generous kind of politics there is. "Council", from Latin roots meaning "call together"; there was, presumably, a moment when the earliest cave-dwellers twigged that their best chance of repelling predators would be to team up and work out a guard rota. The local authority is just an extrapolation of the same thing, but with forms.
In The Street That Cut Everything, Nick Robinson took a break from political editing to task an intrepid group of neighbours from Preston with returning to something like that ancient model. Denied any access to council services (barring schools and emergency services) for six weeks and refunded the corresponding tax in return, they would have to make their own decisions about how to spend their budget, and, indeed, about whether to put their money into the pot at all. With the cuts just about to bite across the country – in Preston, the central government's £21m grant is coming down to £10.5m – and the Big Society endlessly posited as a remedy for the shortfall, it was a beautifully timed and totally intriguing proposition: could we really cope without the services that the government is taking away?
The group's efforts to find out were, of course, not exactly an academic exercise. Throughout the programme, they were heavily coloured by exactly the kind of personal grudges and politicking that one assumes dominate policy at all levels of government. From the very beginning, as the group tried to figure out how to proceed, a few people plainly fancied themselves as the right person to take charge, without quite having the nerve to say so, which was terribly inefficient. Drama teacher Janette and nursery manager Maria quickly emerged as major antagonists, and when the question arose of how much money to give single mother Tracie, who relied heavily on council benefits to support her family, the whole thing started to feel a bit nasty.
As the rows over spending priorities escalated – Janette's disabled dad needed help, too, and even getting rid of a derelict fridge cost £15 – one deeply unpleasant man suggested that Tracie should just have fewer children. Some of the meetings made me think of nothing so much as Lord of the Flies. You can insist on passing a conch around, sure, but there will always be people who see the weakest among us as a threat to the stability of the group.
So that's one lesson from the project: we need a council partly to depersonalise the very difficult process of the better-off giving something to the needy. The other obvious point is the sheer range of public services that we take for granted, from street-lighting to dog-muck-removing. This stuff is intricate, and mundane, and endless, and difficult. There is a slight cheat in the conceit, of course, in that no council will really cut everything. The point the programme makes is, nonetheless, salutary. It's the first piece of popular television I've seen that grapples effectively with how such deep cuts will really play out.
There is, at least, one piece of good news. When that nasty old git basically suggested that Tracie should have kept her legs shut, he was alone. Everyone else in the room voted to give her the money she needed. And away from the soap operatics of those jostling for the leadership, there were a lot of people being quietly kind in the background. Tracey, Sonia, Carol, and John, who thought nothing of disrupting their routines to provide a lifeline to their elderly neighbour Pam; or Tina, who sensibly reflected, when others fussed about those who were taking too much from the pot, that "There are points in your life when you use more services and you probably get very good value for money, and there's points in your life when you probably don't, and that's the way it is."
Tina was not the only resident to come away from the experience with a far clearer sense of just how crucial her council was. I can't believe there will be many viewers not left with the same chastening – and yet strangely moving – sense that this extraordinary collective enterprise, this method of mutual care that society has built up over centuries, underpins everything we do.
Anyone looking for an austerity menu could have done worse than watch Gordon's Great Escape, in which the craggy-faced masterchef headed to Vietnam in search of tips on a cuisine far removed from its manifestations on dodgy takeaway menus in the UK. The literal nose-to-tail eating he encountered made for riveting viewing even for a non-foodie. I was left cold by the rice cooking, but had to hit rewind on my preview DVD to see our macho guide blanch at the snake-heart shot he was confronted with in Ho Chi Minh city. Cheery as the whole thing was, Ramsay did come across a little patronising in his repetitive, blanket praise of a cuisine he didn't really seem to know very much about. Heartening, then, to see him try to cook for his guides at the end of the programme – and be met with only the faintest of praise for his efforts.
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