It took the death of a guest for the bearpit of The Jeremy Kyle Show to finally be decommissioned. And yet the cruelty of Kyle’s show – in which more-often-than-not economically poor, often vulnerable people were encouraged to come on television to resolve intimate conflicts infront of an audience of millions – endured for almost 15 years. That’s 3,320 episodes between 2005 and 2019.
The lure was access to a DNA test, stoking guests’ paranoias about issues of parentage, or a polygraph, a method of establishing truth that – as anyone who’s ever listened to a true crime podcast will know – is notoriously unreliable. If we’re classifying this sort of stuff as poverty porn, Kyle’s show would unquestionably be listed as ‘hardcore’ on the accompanying Povertypornhub.com.
“Channel 5’s Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! essentially hangs on the premise: ‘wouldn’t it be entertaining to see a ten-year-old sobbing as their telly is carted off by bailiffs?”
To say ‘British television hates the working class’ sounds glib, reckless even, but the popularity of Kyle’s show – and how long his reign of terror was allowed to run unchecked – gives credence to the claim. As early into the show’s run as 2008, a producer on The Jeremy Kyle Show confessed to The Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, under the promise of anonymity, that “if they truly screened for mental health issues, there would be no one on that show…”
You might say the same for the output of Channel 5, whose schedules – under the ownership of UKIP donating, former Express boss Richard Desmond – was filled with poverty porn programming such as The Great British Benefits Handout.
This was television in which the underclass existed only to provide the punchline. The station’s Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! – a show which essentially hangs on the premise ‘wouldn’t it be entertaining to see a ten-year-old sob uncontrollably while their telly is carted off by bailiffs?’ – was a huge ratings winner for the fifth terrestrial station.
Two years ago, at the height of the furore around Channel 4’s only marginally less tawdry Benefits Street, Jeremy Corbyn called for an end to TV shows that demonised people living on benefits. Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! just wrapped its fifth season. This programming endures because it’s cheap to make. More channels, more content needed. But it’s no coincidence that poverty porn’s boom erupted in tandem with David Cameron and George Osborne using language like ‘skivers versus shirkers’ in the early part of this decade. There’s a General Election coming. That language will be back.
“Only Fools & Horses – the UK’s best-loved sitcom – embodies a working class drive to be better, not wallow in shit and squalor”
But it wasn’t always thus. ‘Best British TV Ever’ lists are dominated by stories about working class people. At the very summit, there’s the nations most beloved sitcom, Only Fools and Horses; a show filled with fraternal soul, made by the son of a plumber and cleaner, John Sullivan (whose previous work with Citizen Smith told the story of a left-wing, working class ‘urban guerrilla’ living on the dole in Tooting) and which – and this is a crucial point – embodies a working class drive to be better, not wallow in shit and squalor.
Coming-of-age skinhead drama This Is England, written by Shane Meadows – son of a chip shop worker and a lorry driver – is somewhere near the top of such lists. A newcomer, Derry Girls, is welcomed for its portrayal of working-class life in the eye of the storm (and a reminder that ‘Independent Love Song’ by ’90s one-hit-wonders Scarlet is an absolute tune). British TV great Paul Abbott told his truth in the long running Shameless. Frank Gallagher was a terrible advertisement for the working class, but where the Gallagher family were poor, they were rich in love and familial bonds.
We could go on. Steptoe and Son. The Royal Family. Hancock’s Half Hour (a show fuelled by class anxiety). It’s worth noting that all of the above were made by people who grew up in eras where those at the lower end of the economic scale had some degree of freedom to create. The post-dole era has seen creative industries like publishing, radio, film, pop music – and yes, television – become dominated by those who, at the beginning of their careers, are able to be paid in ‘experience’.
It’s not surprising that there aren’t enough working-class people on TV or that the depictions of the working class are unrealistic or detrimental (somebody at EastEnders really needs to explain how pensioner Dot Cotton continues to afford her Zone Two four bedroom flat). There just aren’t enough working-class voices behind the scenes.
“The post-dole era has seen creative industries like publishing, radio, film, pop music and television dominated by those who are able to be paid in ‘experience’ – and those at the bottom end of the economic scale have no freedom to create”
In 2018, a report put together by Create London and the charitable foundation Art Emergency found that just 12.4 percent of people working across TV, film and radio had working class origins. The figures are even more damning with regards to BAME workers – that percentage is just 4.2%. Nobody ever needs to read a Fleabag-centric thinkpiece ever again. The quality of the show speaks for itself and Phoebe Waller-Bridge has unquestionably faced down challenges that come with being a woman navigating the maze of Kafkaesque bullshit that are male-dominated industries. But, y’know, she is a privately-educated granddaughter of a baronet. Her story is one worth listening to, but what of the stories that aren’t being told?
There is some silver lining in the recent debut of Sky One’s excellent Brassic, written by This Is England’s Joe Gilgun (a man who, as recently as 2011, was working as a plasterer) and former senior features writer at The Big Issue Danny Brocklehurst.
The show is based on Gilgun’s upbringing in a small northern town. “I just want you to come home after a fucking nightmare day and see a depiction of the working classes that isn’t fucking miserable,” said Gilgun of the show recently. Mission accomplished: Brassic is rarely a hard watch. It’s fun, sexy and nuanced. In its depiction of bipolar disorder the show deserves all the plaudits available to it. Sure, it often features the stereotypical comedic criminality that continues to define stories about the working-class experience, but – another crucial point – there’s more to the show than just that.
Most poignantly, there’s a moment where the character Erin – played with great sass and soul by the actress Michelle Keegan – talks about her desire to get educated, make some money and make a better life for her young son. It’s not laboured. It’s no slur on working class life. She just wants better. Maybe we don’t need more depictions of working-class life on television. Maybe we just need better, more authentic ones.