Poor Kids, BBC1, Tuesday
Angry Boys, BBC3, Tuesday
In with the Flynns, BBC1, Wednesday
Auntie ought to take better care of these waifs and strays
Sunday 12 June 2011
Bombarded as we are by facts, stats, emails, tweets, "breaking news" stories and general tittle-tattle, the only way to survive the information age is to prioritise the onslaught.
No one gets it right all the time and it would be foolish to expect this from our national public-service broadcaster. But consider the times and channels chosen to transmit the three programmes above and ask yourself: does the BBC really consider a tired family-based sitcom the most important piece of TV on that list?
The subjects of Jezza Neumann's heartbreaking documentary Poor Kids – hidden away in the after-the-evening-news graveyard slot – had long ago learnt to prioritise. Do I eat lunch or "save my hunger up for when dinner comes?" asked Sam, an 11-year-old boy from Leicester. Is it better to have bedroom blinds with mould growing on them or no blinds at all, pondered 10-year-old Paige from her Gorbals high-rise. Is it worth growing up, when scratching your eczema until it bleeds is the best way you know to make yourself "feel calmer", wondered eight-year-old Courtney from the Canterbury estate in Bradford.
Not one of these children was quite what you might expect from the 3.5 million young people said to be living below the poverty line in 21st-century Britain. And that was surely the point of its Bafta-winning programme-maker. No one here covered their face with a hooded sweatshirt. Their behaviour was considered and, the odd venture into a nearby derelict building aside, they were decidedly unferal. Instead, these were old souls trapped inside young people's bodies, and it was this chasm between the natural hope of childhood and the reality of their individual situations that seemed to be causing these kids the stress that they had come to accept as a normal part of their lives.
The devil of their deprivation was all in the detail: the drawer on its side used as a bedroom table; the way Paige clamped her hand over her open mouth when seeing the damp on the ceiling of a neighbour and friend's bathroom; the fact that Sam thought the electricity meter had run out when his family turned out the lights to bring in his birthday cake.
That the gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider in the history of the welfare state was just one more statistic for the programme to bombard us with. But somewhere along the way we seem to have become immune to such facts and figures. Shown at another stage in our history, at another time of day, Poor Kids might have led to questions being raised in Parliament. Instead, the public response went largely along the lines of (a real sample this): "Oh for Christ's sake – 3.5 million in poverty? Really? What does that mean – having to make do with a TV under 40 inches and only a second-generation iPhone?" How easy it is to scoff from our comfortable homes with our hearts hardened by red-top tales of benefit scroungers.
So it's good to know that the public can still get worked up and rally around when it wants to. The announcer on BBC3 was overjoyed to tell us that Chris Lilley's Angry Boys was "trending on Twitter". There, the Australian creator of Summer Heights High was widely agreed to be a "comedy genius". The evidence of the first episode suggested otherwise.
We were reintroduced to Daniel and his "deaf, retarded" twin Nathan from Lilley's first mockumentary We Can be Heroes. And if giving people the middle finger is your idea of humour, then Dan and Nath are up there with Bill Hicks. So it was not until the introduction of rapper S.mouse in the second episode (aired the same night) that Lilley saw fit to add the element of satire – crucial, surely, in any comedy of cruelty. The middle-class kid pretending to be from the 'hood has been done before, of course, but at least S.mouse had the lines to suit his unique moniker ("cos it's got punctuation in the middle and you don't often see that shit").
Poor S.mouse is just trying to entertain the kids. And if Nathan is "inspired to do stupid things" after listening to songs such as "Poo on You", then that's not S.mouse's fault. As he tells us: "I'm just the artist. I just create art." A line which is, just, funny enough to buy Lilley the benefit of the doubt for episode three.
A similarly redeeming element was not to be found in In with the Flynns, which offered nothing we haven't seen before in sitcoms from Bless this House to My Family. Bland, predictable and without a single character to cling to, the only thing to be said for BBC1's new prime-time offering is that at least Sam can spend the pound he has to feed into the slot on the TV on something of greater priority.
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