TV UK, 16 June

The Strangest Village in Britain: reality TV comes home.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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From the title and publicity shot for The Strangest Village in Britain (Channel 4, tonight at 9pm), you might think it was a sort of The Real Royston Vasey, based on a real village discovered somewhere in the British countryside whose denizens resemble the characters from the BBC’s League of Gentlemen.

In fact, Botton in North Yorkshire is home to 135 people with Down’s Syndrome, autism and other conditions that make it difficult to live normal lives. 100 ‘co-workers’ and their children are on hand to help when needed, as the villagers produce toys and furniture for export, at a pace sympathetically described by the narrator as leisurely.

On one level then, The Strangest Village in Britain is a study of a unique experiment in care for people with special needs, and more generally an exploration of how community works in exceptional circumstances. Indeed the co-workers are as interesting in that respect as the villagers: they are mostly Christian, and one mother of several children said she thought it was good for them to grow up in an environment in which they were not the number one priority, a take on parenting that you don’t hear much these days.

But what really strikes me about the programme is how much the lives of the villagers resemble bad television: in that sense, this is The Real Docusoap Village, or The Real Low Budget Drama. The programme opens with a pair of villagers walking to work very slowly, because one of them, a woman with an incredibly loud and squeaky voice, has a pathological fear of slipping. For this woman, the walk to work really is a drama, and the question of whether her companion will be back to collect her at 5pm sharp is of no less epic importance.

Then there’s the feud over who is in charge of the workshop. The leisurely pace is threatened by Pamela, whose tyrannical ambition is veiled behind her vocal suspicion that some other guy thinks he’s in charge. In fact, he is merely guarding his role as the refiller of the water heater, a role usurped by Pamela, who also reduces another villager to tears by doing the dishes in her place.

One problem common to most of the villagers is a difficulty keeping things in perspective: that makes it hard for them to live in mainstream society, but it is what bad TV thrives on. Routine shouting and crying, banal incidents worked into high drama and a pathological inability to identify, let alone understand, anything that really matters. The Strangest Village in Britain is good TV because it reminds us that bad TV is not like real life outside Botton.

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