What’s so real about reality TV?

From poor Manchester boroughs to trendy London suburbs, fly-on-the-wall documentaries always come with a script.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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Shit got real for reality-TV makers this week, with the residents of Manchester borough Harpurhey up in arms over current BBC3 series People Like Us. The series purported to show the real lives of residents of what was once classed as Britain’s most deprived community; it turns out the residents didn’t like that portrayal one bit. There’s 300 of them planning to march upon Salford’s Media City unless the BBC agrees to pull the show; local MP Graham Stringer has demanded an apology from the BBC.

Normally, programme-makers facing outraged calls to ‘ban this filth’ from a pitchfork-wielding mob could expect a degree of sympathy from bien pensant liberals. Yet if the people at Dragonfly TV, producers of People Like Us, have been hoping that Stephen Fry will tweet his way to their rescue, they must feel disappointed. Sympathy for them is in short supply. Residents have accused Dragonfly of some decidedly unjournalistic behaviour, including plying the subjects with drink and staging certain scenes in order to encourage ‘Jeremy Kyle-style, laugh-at-the-chavs type of television’. Community leaders, having initially agreed to take part in this ‘warm and unflinching’ look at life in Harpurhey, reportedly withdrew from the programme after getting the gist of its real intent.

People Like Us is certainly not one of the high watermarks of public-service broadcasting. The first episode centred around a local drag queen; a tubby ladies’ man who (hilariously!) went out with fat women; and a teenage alcoholic with a girlfriend who looked old enough to be his grandmother. Yet, this being BBC3, People Like Us was not merely a gaudy freakshow; no, it was apparently aiming to humanise the residents of Harpurhey.

It goes without saying that this was not the kind of fancy-pants humanisation that involves offering some sociological insight into what deprivation means; nor the deluxe breed of humanisation that asks boring journalistic questions about the political or moral failings which may have led to these people’s predicaments. Hell, we didn’t even get the budget horsemeat lasagne kind of humanisation that asks any questions of any sort.

Instead, BBC3-style humanisation involves – at least, in how it’s presented to the audience – putting a camera in front of its humans and showing us the reality of their human lives. You might reasonably wonder what it is about the mere presence of a camera that is supposed to humanise you. Perhaps Dragonfly presumed the poor residents of Britain’s most deprived community might tear a wandering gazelle limb-from-limb, change colour to evade detection from predators, or something else identifiably non-human. Turns out the residents of Britain’s most deprived community aren’t really that different from you or me: they just have less money. Well, apart from the old lady who took a surreptitious shit in a bin in a launderette – she’s a bit different to the rest of us.

Yet, while the series is undoubtedly lazy and cynical, it is quite another thing to demand that People Like Us be pulled from our screens. Far from being a particularly noxious example, the programme is a solid and unremarkable piece of reality TV: taking a self-selecting group of show-offs, manufacturing scenes for our entertainment, and offering it up uncritically as a window on the world. Given that it’s kinder to its subjects than the vast majority of BBC3’s output, the local community’s reaction smacks a bit of NIMBYism: ‘Making fun of other people is fine, but not in my backyard.’ Proof, perhaps, that despite their relative poverty, even the residents of Harpurhey have some middle-class pretensions.

If there’s any community that should be spitting blood over People Like Us, it’s documentary-makers, who must feel that there are more insightful programmes to be made than this. Or perhaps we, the audience, should be getting mad, since we are constantly being served up with such thin televisual gruel.

Then again, it can be a difficult business knowing which slice of reality will bring protesters to your door and which will warm the cockles of the nation’s heart. At first glance, Channel 4’s The Fried Chicken Shop: A Life in a Day came across as a parody of fly-on-the-wall docs, as it followed the staff and customers of a south London chicken shop over the course of one day – but actually, it turned out to be one of the unexpected feelgood hits of the week. At the very least, with the vaguest of motivations of exploring Britain’s increasing appetite for juicy battered chicken, it couldn’t be accused of serving up a thin gruel. It was jolly and jaunty stuff: the staff were articulate and friendly youngsters paying their way through college; the customers were a diverse bunch of drug dealers, loved-up clubbers, drag queens, manual workers, the elderly, the homeless, and the like.

It may have been more upbeat in mood than People Like Us, but was it more real? Was it arse. This was a chicken shop in trendy Clapham, after all, and everyone seemed to be suspiciously keen to be at their wittiest and friendliest in front of the cameras. Did this wonderful and diverse selection of modern liberal multicultural Britain go to that chicken shop every day of the week, you wondered? There were some annoying middle-class bohos ironically slumming it in the chicken shop, but not nearly enough for it to be a true representation of Clapham. Perhaps the footage wasn’t even recorded over one actual day.

Facts, Homer Simpson once reminded us, can be used to prove anything. A person cannot live on fly-on-the-walls alone, it seems, but at least this week’s television helpfully reminded us we can always get some tasty and cheap fried chicken instead.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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