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TV UK, 7 July

Slaughterhouse tries to dissect the white working-class male.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Slaughterhouse – the Task of Blood (BBC2, Monday night) was a lyrical film about life and death in an Oldham abattoir, combining tasteful black-and-white footage of animals being stunned and killed with interviews with the men who do the slaughtering, the butchering and the cleaning up. The familiar ethical challenge was issued: can you continue to eat meat having seen how it’s produced? (A nation shrugs, and plans tomorrow’s breakfast.) But the film was really about the ‘hidden world’ of the white working class.

The film’s ‘exoticism’ in this regard was both clichéd (racism) and surprising (a slaughterman planning to vote Green), but the sense of otherness was unrelenting. In fact the character of the racism was quite revealing. A couple of workers delivered the usual paranoid routine about asylum seekers being lavished with money, but the old Asian man who came to perform halal slaughter said he never experienced hostility. Recent immigration meant Poles, and the boss reported, reluctantly he said, that they were much better workers than the lazy English lads. One of the English lads seemed to confirm this by saying he couldn’t be bothered to vote. If he did vote, though, ‘if you want to know’, it would be BNP. I couldn’t help feeling this was the Lancashire equivalent of the fearsome native shaking his spear for the camera.

The gap between the lives of these men and the values of the media class was perhaps better expressed in the film’s focus on ‘bullying’, or relentless pisstaking. The slaughtermen apparently look down on the cleaners (though cleaning an abattoir is no girly task) and one young man in particular seemed to invite abusive howls. Shockingly to middle-class standards, the boss said he put up with that sort of thing as long as it didn’t get physical, not that the young cleaner was asking for help: he clearly harboured revenge fantasies instead. There was some disagreement about how hard it really is to carve up a dead animal, with the cleaners somewhat sceptical, but whatever their particular jobs, all of the men were proud to be in work and not sitting at home.

This is significant, because in the middle-class consciousness, the term ‘working class’ is in danger of coming to mean ‘unemployed’, or at least to represent an alien culture not worthy of respect. This is the premise of The British Working Class (Channel 4, Sunday at 8pm), in which author Michael Collins looks at how the working class have gone from being seen as ‘the salt of the Earth to the scum of the Earth’. The periodisation here is a bit sketchy: at times Collins seems to posit a golden age of pearly kings and queens adored by the nation, at others the present disdain is seen as a throwback to the elitist past.

Again, race is a major factor, with the focus very much on the white working class, and the perception that these ‘chavs’ and ‘pikeys’ are racist. Collins looks at how the inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence crystallised middle-class prejudices against communities such as those in south London where Collins grew up. Some of these points are well made, and indeed some current discussion of the white working class recalls the old-fashioned class-tinged racism of the nineteenth century.

But something about Collins’ tone grates. Partly it’s the fact that this successful writer insists on talking about his class (take it back a couple of generations and few of us are anything else). In his chippy nostalgia, Collins is complicit in characterising the working class as a distinct culture, albeit one he is more positive about. What’s missing from the film is any reflection on the political dimension of class. Margaret Thatcher is mentioned because she allowed people to buy their council houses, altering working-class culture, rather than because of her administration’s crushing of the organised labour movement.

Ultimately, The British Working Class is a bit of a whinge, and tells us nothing about the political circumstances that transformed British society, allowing the experience of the working class to be effectively aestheticised in a film like the much more interesting Slaughterhouse.

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