TV UK, 24 March

MacIntyre’s Underworld: Mancunian gangsters defy middle-class stereotypes.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

If it had been on Channel 4, MacIntyre’s Underworld (Channel 5 on Tuesday) might have been called ‘The Real Shameless’. The programme was an extended portrait of one Dominic Lattlay Fottfoy, the star of his own unfilmed comedy drama on a Manchester housing estate, which recalls the sugary grit of the Channel 4 series.

That unusual moniker unsurprisingly was established by deed poll. It’s an acronym standing for Dominic née Noonan’s philosophy of life: look after them that look after you, fuck off them that fuck off you. Never mind the peculiar regional use of fuck off as a transitive verb; the programme focused as much on the first part, the looking after. Whereas Shameless’ Manchester Irish patriarch Frank Gallagher is a useless layabout, Lattlay Fottfoy was portrayed here as a pillar of the community, taking the place of police and social workers to sort out local people’s problems.

This was something of a departure for Donal MacIntyre, who made his name with often not very good undercover exposés of crime and malfeasance. Granted, Dominic Latt… Noonan is allegedly a gangster and has spent more than half his life in prison (he was one of the orchestrators of the Strangeways riot in the 1990s), and the programme had to be postponed so as not to compromise another trial. But in producing a character portrait of an individual, MacIntyre made a very different kind of documentary. In fact, the programme had something in common with Martin Bashir’s portrait of Michael Jackson, except that Noonan has a slightly closer relationship with reality.

There were a number of cute moments: the revelation that one of Noonan’s young hangers on was an actor on the side, the gang sorting out a family grievance in exchange for breakfast. But the key moments were those that overturned middle-class assumptions about what gangsters are supposed to be like. First the skinheaded Noonan was shown speaking snatches of Urdu to the boys in the kebab shop: ‘You’re not a racist, then?’ MacIntyre asked. ‘No.’

Later, MacIntyre noticed out loud that Noonan had ‘a hint of lavender’ about him. Apparently that means gay, and Noonan was happy to confirm. So far, so entertaining, and if the programme told us little about the social context within which Noonan operates (the programme’s suggestion that the Noonans are untouchable was undermined somewhat by the knife murder of one of the family the day before broadcast), it told us no less than the standard undercover investigative format.

The trend for documentary to offer colour rather than hard analysis is confirmed more literally in another Channel 5 programme: The Russian Revolution in Colour (Tuesdays at 8pm). Politically, the programme offers a standard historical account, lamenting the failure of the liberal democracy that allegedly could have come about in various ways depending on which historian you ask. There is no serious attempt to engage with the theoretical insights of the revolutionaries themselves. But the real disappointment is the colour.

While programmes like The Second World War in Colour and The British Empire in Colour (both ITV) have unearthed real colour footage, offering a fresh take on things and unsettling our perception that certain historical events took place in black and white, this one merely uses colourised footage. This is much less exciting, because we don’t have the sense of glimpsing something real that comes of seeing Hitler, for example, looming in original technicolour. Worse, the archive footage is cut with dramatic reconstruction, ‘weathered’ to look like the real thing.

This is the opposite of what documentary is supposed to do. When it comes to understanding complicated events, whether historical or contemporary, there is something to be said for black and white, metaphorically at least.

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