Dreda Say Mitchell: If Dennis Potter came along today, he'd have no chance

Our culture is a lot poorer if only part of the population has a voice
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The Independent Online

I was fortunate enough to be invited on to Woman's Hour last week to discuss my latest novel, Geezer Girls. The fascinating thing about the response I had was how surprised many listeners were that someone from my background was in the professions and writing novels. But their surprise was no surprise to me.

These days any art on working-class themes tends to be about, and not by, the people depicted, and that's posing increasing problems for those who care about our culture. Tony Parsons once said that the middle class go to the theatre to see plays about how awful the middle class are but I suspect that view might now be out of date. These days, novels, dramas and films tell us how awful the working class are. So what have we learnt?

Well, these people all live on sink estates, of course. They're scrounging off the social and wear clobber from Primark. The girls have a collection of children by various fathers and the boys have a collection of Asbos. It goes without saying that they're all racists and they're not very bright, which may well explain why they're all so miserable.

It's true there are some working-class men who break the mould. These guys are good looking, witty and wear designer suits. Unfortunately for all you birds out there, they also carry "shooters" and "whack" anyone who gets in the way of their "deals". These working-class men also tend to be middle-class men who learned how to do it at Rada.

As for the rest of the working class (you know, the vast majority), I'm afraid they just don't cut it fiction-wise these days. Like Blacks that don't run with street gangs, or Muslims who aren't trying to blow the rest of us up, they're not on the screen so they don't exist.

The difference between negative representations of the middle class and working class in the arts and media is fairly simple. All of middle-class life is available in our media and public life, so depictions of the down side are balanced by the positive.

But the British working class is only called on to occasionally perform their circus act as the people you wouldn't want living next door. And what is especially depressing for those of us who actually grew up on council estates is that these circus acts are usually done by middle-class artists under the handle, "giving a voice to" or "depicting the reality of". Because, of course, the working class doesn't actually have a voice of its own or least not one that anybody can be bothered to go out and find.

Even a generation ago, things were very different. That great generation of working-class artists that came to prominence in the 1960s were still at work. Harold Pinter was writing plays, Keith Waterhouse was writing novels, Galton and Simpson wrote comedy drama that was as good as Beckett and a lot funnier.

Barrie Keeffe, now best remembered for The Long Good Friday, wrote a series of television plays on working-class themes in the 1970s that were subversive and incendiary. But if Dennis Potter turned up at a TV station in 2009, they'd probably put a security guard's uniform on him and tell him to keep the riff-raff out.

There are obvious reasons why this isn't good news for our arts and media, and also some that are less obvious. The obvious one is that our culture is a lot poorer and becomes dangerously unbalanced when only part of the population has a voice. The less obvious one is that these representations affect the attitudes and decision-making of the people who run this country.

Most members of the "progressive" middle class are signed up to the idea that it would be a good thing if a few more working-class youngsters appeared in the professions, the arts and politics.

But, as someone who has attended a fair few meetings in her time, I've often been struck by the subtext. It goes: "Of course we're trying to do our best for these awful people but, be honest, would you want one of them as your doctor, lawyer or MP? I mean, have you seen Shameless?"

It's still the case that most of those with their hands on the levers of power in this country come from the same classes as they did in the 1950s. They also know as much about the life of those who don't come from those classes as they did in the 1950s, and this is true whether they call themselves "conservative" or "progressive".

But our culture itself isn't helping now that it too has reverted to the 1950s in its depictions of the working class. Cheeky, cockney characters and the undeserving poor? Do me a favour...

Dreda Say Mitchell is a writer, broadcaster and education adviser. Her latest novel, 'Geezer Girls', has just been published by Hodder and Stoughton at £6.99