Shameless was never a straightforward TV drama.
It wasn’t dreamt up by some upper-class snob, serving up caricatures of the “lower orders” for the ridicule of Middle England. The creator was Paul Abbott, who grew up as a working-class boy in Burnley. It was a turbulent childhood, too, including a suicide attempt, being sectioned and then placed into foster care. His background is a striking contrast with the privately educated and pampered who dominate the TV industry.
Neither did Shameless, the final episode of which is broadcast next week, pan out as originally intended. Abbott’s pitch “was substantially autobiographical”, according to George Faber, who helped to produce the programme. He conceived it as a “very downbeat and grim” single film, but that didn’t seem to work. Instead of being a gritty reflection on his early life, it was reworked to make people laugh.
The characters are not one-dimensional or in some sort of 21st-century Hogarth either. They live pretty chaotic lives, but they are generally clever, complex and witty. Lip – the eldest son of anti-hero Frank Gallagher, and so nicknamed for being “a bit of a gobshite” – charges classmates for finishing their homework, and ends up at university.
Whingeing about shows like Shameless can risk coming across as dour or po-faced, or as complaints from oversensitive but rather patronising middle-class types. It’s just a bit of TV entertainment watched by people from all backgrounds, many would say; it’s not supposed to be some grand political statement. And the real problems with Shameless were never to do with the programme itself – but rather the sort of society we live in.
We don’t just live in a chronically unequal country: we live in a highly segregated one, too. Because the council housing sold off under right-to-buy was not replaced, the remaining stock became prioritised for those most in need: estates like the community portrayed in Shameless almost became treated as a social dumping ground by successive governments. We’re now a long way from Nye Bevan’s dream that council housing would support mixed communities, replicating “the lovely feature of the English and Welsh village, where the doctor, the grocer and the farm labourer all lived on the same street”.
What this means is that large chunks of society simply don’t mix with people from council estates. The only interaction many have with them is through TV screens and newspapers. The larger-than-life, intentionally comic characters of the Chatsworth estate become the whole reality. There aren’t programmes portraying normal people on council estates just getting on with their lives to balance out the likes of Shameless. There is, however, an ample amount of media coverage and reality TV shows dedicated to hunting out the most extreme examples to pass them off as the tip of the iceberg: the feckless, the workshy, the scrounging.
Fictional shows such as Shameless and Little Britain are even seized on by journalists to pass them off as real life. When Karen Matthews kidnapped her daughter in 2008 in an attempt to extort money from the tabloid press, her West Yorkshire community – believing the child had been snatched by a stranger – rallied together: raising money, printing leaflets. And yet, to their understandable upset, The Sun referred to them as “a real-life version of the smash hit Channel 4 series Shameless”. A YouGov poll a few years ago revealed that most people in the television industry believed Vicky Pollard was an accurate representation of the “white working class”.
And so TV shows have proved highly effective in softening up public opinion to support slashing the welfare state. It’s not some intentional grand conspiracy: of TV producers smoking large cigars with Tory ministers while they plot together about how to grind the faces of the poor into the dirt. It’s just that TV commissioners tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds, and are interested in sensationalism to attract viewers. And so we’ve ended up with poverty porn – the latest being Channel 4’s Skint – that helps build the image of an undeserving, beer-swilling, drug-taking poor, sticking their fingers up at the taxpayers they’re living off.
The reality, tragically, remains far from our screens. Most people in poverty are in working households. One in six workers have claimed jobseeker’s allowance in the past couple of years, most for just a few weeks. The desperation for work is so intense that there are now 45 people chasing every low-skilled job. Charities report parents skipping meals to make sure their kids are fed. Studies show that it is middle-class people – not the poorest – who consume the most alcohol, and are more likely to suffer from obesity. You would never know this from our TV screens and newspapers. The reality is airbrushed out of existence in favour of the extreme and the grotesque.
There are people in this country who can’t be bothered to work, who’d prefer to scrape by on the measly benefits that exist, who run amok on booze and drugs. The point is they are the exception, not the norm. But they are constantly hunted down by ratings-hungry TV producers and cynical journalists.
Shameless has had a good run. But what our TV screens need is a new wave of drama showing the reality of British life in an enjoyable way. It would mean working-class writers and producers who can break into the middle-class closed shop of the media. A challenge, to say the least. But one, I hope, that will be taken up.
Owen Jones is the author of ‘Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class’
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