Television's class struggle

Will television ever stop caricaturing the working classes? Michael Collins, winner of the Orwell Prize, examines the uphill struggle for small-screen realism
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The Independent Online

A few years later, with a new director general at the helm of the corporation, determined to reflect the social shifts expected to make the Sixties swing, class remained key to British broadcasting, both behind and in front of the camera. However, this time the spotlight absorbed the lower orders. Clipped accents, along with the right postcode and the right pedigree remained paramount, but cloth caps and whippets were also in the running. As if to herald the news that the revolution would after all be televised, the BBC screened the Dennis Potter documentary Between Two Rivers.

Potter was an Oxford graduate taken up as a trainee at the BBC, and the documentary recorded a return to his working-class roots in the Forest of Dean. As with his book of the time, The Changing Forest, the programme was a means of documenting the state of working-class culture in the face of major social, cultural and technological change. A change, incidentally, that had been initiated by the birth of broadcasting. He was not alone in these endeavours, as Richard Hoggart had chartered similar territory, in a less localised and personalised approach with the publication of The Uses of Literacy. Years later, Alan Bennett made the point that when writers return to their working-class roots or overstate these origins - a sin he believed himself to be guilty of - it is not solely in pursuit of a sense of belonging: "It is a mild form of inverted snobbery, which Richard Hoggart might dignify by calling it 'groping for the remnants of a tradition'."

I might now be guilty of a similar, sinful grope. The new Channel 4 series Class in Britain begins with a documentary on the working class, in which I have taken aspects of my book The Likes of Us from the page to the screen. Originally published last summer, the text was an attempt at "a biography of the white working class". It chronicles the experience of this native tribe within the confines of Southwark in south-east London from the beginning of the 19th century until the present. The choice of setting was not an arbitrary one as my family had lived there for generations. It would be impossible to attempt a biography of the urban working class without focusing on a particular landscape, as this class more than any other is inextricably linked with the concept of home, a street, a neighbourhood, a community. Yet, historically, the landscape of the urban working class has been subject to more change than elsewhere because of redevelopment, the arrival of migrants en masse, and incessant attempts to accommodate its dense population.

Back in 1960, that original Potter book and documentary gauged the state of the working class - urban and rural, north and south - when it was being consumed by that mass culture colonised by television. Ironically, that "box of delights', as Potter described it, was discovering the working class at a time when the folklore and customs of its localised culture was becoming extinct.

Both The Likes of Us, and the Channel 4 documentary The British Working Class, were embarked upon when that common culture was rumoured to be going belly up, to be replaced by a brand, spanking new model: multiculturalism. Things were becoming fragmented once again. And the first casualty of the new order was apparently the urban white working class, who had long since lost the novelty value they earned when Potter became one of the first to introduce them on that delightful box. Both The Likes Of Us and this forthcoming documentary are therefore attempts to follow the journey of the urban white working class from the start to the - reputed - finish line. Not as a lament, or a wistful nostalgia for a past that barely existed, but simply to put the record straight. A view from an outsider that moved out, as opposed to that from outsiders that were never in.

The story of the portrayal of proles on television, until the transmission of this current documentary has been a lengthy, and occasionally troubled stretch. Before working-class insiders began broadcasting their reports on life below stairs - Tony Warren was conjuring up Coronation Street as Potter took to the Forest - it was left to interlopers from other classes to descend, and rustle up their dispatches from the abyss. In the 1958 BBC documentary We Are All Together, presenter Robert Reid slapped the accent of the young Dimblebys into his mouth and headed to the East End. Perched awkwardly in the kitchen of a tenement, sandwiched between a mangle and a matriarch, he addressed the working-class phenomenon of the extended family like a man who fell to earth struggling with the currency. While the Gladdens, the subject of the documentary, had been nudged into performing set pieces from their everyday lives to boldly underline the extent of the family's bond: the mother calling across the forecourt to her married siblings, asking if they want to pop in for tea.

By the early Sixties, in the superb documentary South of the River - the journey I recently embarked on for the camera - the anchorman is absent, and the young and old of Bermondsey speak to the lens about the potential affluence in the air, that might have an impact on their ambitions and aspirations. Some of the monologues are as poignant - poetic, even - as those that would later appear in the Nell Dunn's Wednesday Play, Up The Junction.

It was not the BBC but ITV that was the first to capitalise on working-class viewing tastes, as well as make this tribe a subject for drama. You can't help thinking that this might have been the downside of the Reithian ethos that permeated the corporation after his exit. (Even though this first director general resigned before television put radio in the shade). When John Reith took an office in Kingsway to work on a little start-up that would become the BBC, he believed that broadcasting would be "a drawn sword parting the darkness of ignorance". This Scottish presbyterian was a man with a mission, touched by the hand of God, and maybe Matthew Arnold, as he set about bringing the best of everything that had ever been to the widest possible audience. Reith was preoccupied with employing Oxbridge graduates, to compensate for his own failure to obtain a place there. Homosexuals and divorcees were barred from playing in the BBC orchestra, and women newsreaders were anathema. It was therefore hardly surprising that he would take the patrician approach to the populace: giving them not what they wanted but what he believed they needed. No wonder, then, that radio's audience remained rigidly middle class until the Second World War, when comedians were brought in to pep up morale, and the actor Wilfred Pickles became the first man to read the news with a regional working-class accent.

When ITV was launched in the middle of the 1950s, Reith compared it to the arrival on these shores of smallpox, the bubonic plague and the black death. At this new commercial network - currently being celebrated by Melvyn Bragg in his series The People's Channel - someone came up with the idea of making programmes for the people that actually bought the televisions: the working class. (Seventy per cent of those with television licences had not been educated beyond the age of 15.) And in between the downmarket prime-time quizzes in which you could Take Your Pick and Double Your Money came a series that changed the face of television drama, Armchair Theatre. The point that broadcast drama had arrived at in relation to the working class was similar to that which British literature had settled on centuries before. In the hands of authors, members of the working class - notably the cockney - were often cast as comic characters, until the end of the 19th century, when novelists described them in terms of the villainy, the vice, and the slums in their neighbourhoods; remaining oblivious to the notion that joy, warmth and comradeship were also factors in their lives. As well as the generosity that a Bermondsey missionary once claimed "touches a point reached nowhere else, and does so by the prompting of instinct, rather than as the result of exhortation and conscious virtue".

It wasn't until the end of the 1920s that what might be described as the first working-class novel reached the shelves. The book was Living, by Henry Green. It was inspired by the conversations the author overheard in pubs among the cockney workers who had moved with his father's ironmongery business to Birmingham. This work was a watershed because of its absence of plot and also of the Grand Guignol that constrained the slum fiction from the fag end of the 19th century. It relied to a large extent on dialogue, and didn't comment on the lives of the working class, but eavesdropped: "Another thing I can't understand about the lower classes," he said, "is this business by which they pay 1d per week for all their lives and get a whopping £60 funeral at their end."

It was the emphasis on the ordinary rather than the exceptional that made it pass as an authentic slice of social realism. Similarly, in television, the writers commissioned to contribute to ITV's Armchair Theatre were inspired by what Ted Willis, the scriptwriter for Dixon of Dock Green, later summed up as "the marvellous world of the ordinary". But the writers were alone in attempting to present a more realistic portrayal of the working class. London-based middle-class actors were still hitting the north to be cast in roles that required cod-Liverpudlian accents. And clothes in which these characters were dressed continued to owe a debt to Andy Capp. One of the regular TV playwrights from that "golden age", Alun Owen - author of No Trams To Lime Street and Lena, O My Lena - recalled having an argument with a wardrobe mistress, who simply lined up a play's cast to be dressed in mufflers and caps. "My life!" he said. "Haven't you heard about Burton's? We dress differently nowadays."

Taking its cue from ITV, the BBC poached the producer behind the series and had him create the Wednesday Play, which delivered Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, both directed by Ken Loach. The latter was adapted from the novel by Nell Dunn, which itself was reminiscent of Henry Green's observations of the working class, and both television plays were a bid to move away from filmed studio drama, and introduce the documentary style that was then shorthand for authenticity.

But the themes of abortion and homelessness, which were to distinguish these two films, also set the trend for formulaic dramas that grafted standard working-class characters on to issues. Some of which brought to mind the criticism that HG Wells once levelled at authors that took the masses as their muse: "The son of the alcoholic proletarian has suddenly replaced the woman with the past in the current novels."

The Loach films have since come to summarise the output of the BBC drama department of the time, but Dennis Potter was just one of a number of regulars who eschewed the vérité method for a non-naturalist approach that attempted to get inside the minds as well as the homes of working-class characters, in the pursuit of The Real. Yet the project that pulled in the viewing masses at that moment was Coronation Street. An early scene from the series is included in The British Working Class, featuring the late, lamented Ena Sharples.

As with the more recent Shameless by Paul Abbott, the characters were inspired by those that surrounded the writer - Tony Warren - while he grew up in a working-class neighbourhood. What becomes apparent from watching the early episodes is that it was not the grit, or even the - long before the streets of soaps were filled with serial killers and bodies buried under pubs and patios - preoccupation with ordinary, domestic situations that viewers could identify with. Its success could also be attributed to the fact that it was a portrayal of that working-class culture that Potter was reporting on at the same time, and discovering that it was becoming obsolete. The Weatherfield of the past 40 years, and much of the Walford of the past 20 years, is still an interpretation of the working-class experience of the late 1940s, before television got a foothold. In these soaps, families still squat around the table instead of that "box of delights".

It was only with the arrival of The Royle Family in the 1990s that a working-class household on television acknowledged the role that television played in its lives. And the series took the efforts to recreate the ordinary on screen to an extreme, by having the characters seated in the living room throughout, with the action, or lack of action, played in real time. The one aspect of the series that departed from this further nod towards authenticity, almost as a cop out, was in the character of Jim Royle. This loud, opinionated father-figure commented on every image that appeared on the screen in the corner of the room. Yet, he never appeared to react to the TV news that provided a window on the world. Like Johnny Speight's creation, Alf Garnett, who pulled in the millions at the end of the 1960s, the real Jim Royle would have something to say about politics, prime ministers, race, immigration and foreigners. And the views might not be entirely in keeping with the rules on modern social etiquette. There would of course be less chance of an expression of such views these days in the name of comedy. Someone, somewhere, would be on the steps of TV Centre, armed with the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.

Meanwhile, the depiction of the ordinary, the real, and the masses on television, as The British Working Class is screened, is a world apart from the age when Potter assisted in bringing these themes to the screen. Despite the news that classlessness is the mood of the age, class continues to have a profile on television. But the modern equivalent of the working class are once again depicted as caricatures, and extreme stereotypes that are the exception to the rule. Never was this more true than with the batch of programmes that have snuck in on the back of the desire for TV reality. We see them being advised by society girls on how to dress, how to clean their house, how to sell their house, how to become a lady, and in the case of Kerry Katona this week, how a working-class Northerner can learn to pass themselves off as royalty. If this is reality, then TS Eliot was right, humankind - not to mention the viewer - can only bear so much of it.

'The British Working Class' is on Channel 4 at 8pm on Sunday. 'The Likes of Us' is published by Granta

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