1990s >> 1996 >> no-1098-february-1996

TV Review: Hands up for the Enterprise Culture

This column noted a couple of months ago the peculiar phenomenon of non-employment at large in Roy Clarke’s BBC TV sitcoms Last of the Summer Wine and Keeping Up Appearances. Now, it appears, the soap operas are at it too. There has always been a disproportionately large number of shopkeepers and stall-holders in EastEnders (though given its focus on Albert Square street market this can be forgiven) but for the denizens of Brookside Close, Liverpool, non-employment seems a more unlikely proposition, obviously barring unemployment, of course. This has not deterred the scriptwriters, though, who seem to be carrying a bizarre torch for Thatcherism.

When Napoleon said that England was a nation of shopkeepers he couldn’t have had Brookside Close in mind, could he? The only family in Brookside whose principal income is from employment is the Banks family, the Close’s current token trade unionists with a penchant for scabbing, and sometime lottery winners (!). Virtually every other adult in this programme is either a capitalist or, as is more often the case, an aspiring one. An entire parade of shops has been built behind the Close in recent years, ostensibly so that all the local Alan Sugars can achieve their lifetime’s ambition of moving out of the working class. In Brookside there is only one factory worker and nobody at all who works in an office. There is, though, a restaurateur, several shopkeepers and food retailers, a taxi firm owner and freelance drug-dealer, a night-club owner, and at the bottom of the pecking-order—and somewhat more realistically—a window cleaner. And yet Brookside is supposed to be famous for its “social realism”. In what kind of society are workers able to turn themselves into successful shopkeepers at the drop of a hat? Certainly not this one. Last year Jackie Dixon was a swimming pool attendant. This year she owns a top hairdressing salon and dates a famous Australian soap star who comes knocking mysteriously at her door. Pass the smelling salts.

Most adults in Britain are wage and salary earners or their dependents, or alternatively live on benefits. Those who try their hand at self-employment do not, on average, last long. If Phil Redmond and his scriptwriters care to take a look at the income statistics published each year by the Central Statistical Office they will find this borne out They will also discover that Brookside Close must be one of the most unrepresentative areas in Britain, let alone Liverpool. No unemployment, nobody on benefits, hardly any wage and salary earners and an apparent boom in the enterprise culture. A more out-of-touch scenario is difficult to picture. The soap that brought us the gritty drama of the Jordaches is, it seems, capable of losing touch with the real world like any other soap.

Gritty but bitty
While Brookside has often provided examples of excellent drama and its coverage of contemporary issues has probably been unequalled, its “social realism” has always been much more selective, despite its reputation. Let us, as they say, look at some of the other evidence. While there is no unemployment there are two lottery winners on the Close—nice and topical it has to be said, but realistic? And what about all those unnatural deaths? Nobody has died from natural causes in Brookside for years. Meanwhile virtually every house on that tiny close has experienced a murder of some kind. There have been stabbings (more than one), shootings, sieges (again, more than one), bombings. mysterious killer viruses, drug overdoses, rapes and various forms of tortures and beatings. to name just the ones that spring immediately to mind. If this is what Liverpool is like in the leafy suburbs, hell knows it must be bad in Toxteth.

In some ways, this could all be said to be unavoidable—social realism, after all, is always likely to take second place to drama and entertainment, especially in today’s media environment which understandably encourages people to forget about their lives, not re-live them. But perhaps in future media commentators might care to toss around phrases like “gritty social realism” with less abandon than they do presently, especially if the extent of that social realism is a glorification of a long-dead “enterprise culture” among the working class on the one hand, and the tabloid titillation of mass murder in the suburbs on the other. They must know that Brookside should and can—if past performances are anything to go by—do better.

Dave Perrin