Proper Gander: Screening The Working Class

Occasionally, TV companies allow programme-makers to bite the hand that feeds them. A recent mouthful was the Royal Television Society Huw Weldon Memorial Lecture Totally Shameless: How TV Portrays The Working Class (BBC4). In this insightful and engaging polemic, Owen Jones explains why it’s become acceptable for television to denigrate the working class.

As the broadcasting industry expanded from the late 50s, new opportunities arose for people from lowlier backgrounds to enter the profession. Consequently, a growing number of TV shows reflected working class experiences, from Galton and Simpson’s edgy sitcoms to gritty dramas like Cathy Come Home and The Spongers. By the mid 80s, the working class had been weakened by the decline of the unions and the rise of individualism. The media and the government started to drum into us that ‘we’re all middle class now, apart from those scrounging chavs’. The popular perception of class has shifted towards being defined by culture, according to a study by polling group Britain Thinks. Someone who listens to Radio 4 and owns a cafetière is ‘middle class’, while someone who reads tabloids and watches soaps is working class.

Worryingly, the term ‘working class’ has often become equated with the derogatory term ‘chav’. Because of this change in the way we see class, and fewer opportunities being available for people from poorer backgrounds to enter the television industry, the traditional blue collar working class has virtually disappeared from our screens. The schedules have become dominated by ‘cops, docs and frocks’, with the ‘docs’ – or documentaries – often being voyeuristic prole-baiting sneerathons. Gypsies, for example, are presented as ‘a strange breed to be prodded through the bars of their cages’. Extreme examples of benefit claimants, such as families with a dozen kids, are paraded as the tips of uncouth, freeloading icebergs. It’s now the norm for television to depict the working class as ugly stereotypes like Vicki Pollard and those chewed up and spat out by The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Jones’ argument usefully illustrates how television mirrors and contributes to the current belittling of the working class. He wants to fight back with a return to programming which reflects working class struggles honestly, and not through the distorting prism of bourgeois ideology. He doesn’t spend long enough discussing how the belief in a ‘middle class’ gives a misleading view of society’s real class structure. However, he rightly prefers to use definitions of class based on ‘wealth and power’, rather than lifestyle. After all, ‘an aristocrat who watches The X Factor is still an aristocrat’.


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