We live in a country that is based on inequality. That is without doubt. If you need reminding of that fact here are the numbers from The Equality Trust – the poorest fifth in the UK have 8% of the wealth, the richest fifth 41%. Go to the top 1% and that fraction becomes so stark as to be almost meaningless, the top 1% in the UK have an average annual income of £248,000 and wealth of around £1million compared to £8,628 annual income and £12,500 wealth for the bottom tenth. Go beyond that to the ultra-wealthy clustered in London and the disparities become so ridiculous as to make you wonder why there aren’t enraged neuvo-peasants at the gates wielding pitchforks.
Wrapped up as we are in the Scottish devolution vote, this inequality has seemingly fed into a disparity of influence, as best explained by George Monbiot today in The Guardian in this erudite essay on the lack of established media support for the ‘Yes’ vote and, in some quarters, blatant misrepresentation of the campaign for independence.
Whilst Monbiot rightly points out the mirroring of a Westminster political elite and a London media elite, equally remote and disengaged from real people, the runoff from his point goes beyond news gathering and feeds into our culture at all levels. It is not hysterical to suggest that unless a rebalancing of influence, representation and access to all levers of our culture is put into practice, the disengagement of the establishment from a rump populace will reach a point where harmful and potentially fatal cracks develop not just in the United Kingdom, that may already be too late, but across regions, cities and within even the smallest communities where the poor sit cheek by jowl with outrageous wealth.
A few weeks ago supporters of Middlesbrough FC unveiled a banner that read ‘Being Poor Is Not Entertainment’ in response to the arrival of Channel 4’s ‘Benefits Street’ in their area. Of course, it is. Not just ‘Benefits Street’ but a whole raft of television programming works on this principal. Think of the social class take up on an average (non celebrity) reality show and the motivation of producers behind the challenges and tasks set for them or the average social status of characters and their portrayals in high profile dramas. When was the last time a contemporary drama led with a positive working class character? When the lower orders are allowed on screen it is generally as victims. Murder victims, law breakers, social outcasts and desperate single mothers abound across our screens, painted in one dimension, raped, murdering and murdered and imprisoned for our entertainment. Soap operas, for so long a vehicle for representation of ‘normal’ people, (see ‘Coronation Street’ at its sixties height or ‘Brookside’ in its earlier days) have become caricature knockabout, stuffed with an ever revolving story set of violence, sexual misdemeanor and family breakdown that parallel the red top and middle tabloid scare stories of a lower order in our cities and towns, bent on destruction and chaos.
Spin back in time however and you can’t move for grubby working class folk seemingly demonstrating good character. ‘The Village’ styles itself as a gritty drama and posits Maxine Peake’s Grace as a proto proletarian smasher of glass ceilings. John Simm’s John plays the straight man, fashioning a working class meme as the silent type, hard working and aware of his place in the grand order gamboling around him. Various other cast members fulfil their roles as, variously, salt of the earth widow, fallen and rescued woman and young lad yearning for a better world. Whilst the first series strove for some realism, not least of all in the execution of a shellshocked deserter, this latest run is a playground version of the Britain of the early 20th century, in large part swept clean of the general strike, civil unrest and grinding pre NHS and Trade Union poverty. There are seemingly no children with rickets or TB in this idyllic part of the North.
Thus the fallen woman marries the magistrates son, some of the folk from the ‘big house’ demonstrate social conscious beyond the realms of realism, one sleeping with a maid to enable a divorce for his trapped wife (to marry the idealistic working class lad made good school teacher) and destroy the fixing of an attempt to imprison him and the yearning lad following a re-enactment of the Kinder trespass in miniature and a decade too early made violent by Socialist agitators from the city (shudder) whilst the bastard son of the youngest aristo daughter is returned to her and welcomed into the family. Only the eldest son, the gay Tory Home Secretary, resists this attempt at modernism. The working class inhabitants of ‘The Village’ are presented as simple minded good folk or deferential aspirants, looking for non confrontational outlets for their watered down financial problems and lack of real political clout. To cap it all, the plot has now switched from betterment of the workers to protecting the rural ‘idyll’ threatened by the imposition of a reservoir for the working masses of Sheffield. From the plight of the the workers to old Tory defence of the green and pleasant land in two series, all mention of the huddled masses contained in two lines from the one dimensional Labour politico, working class hero turned destructive villain via this plot device.
On ITV the return of ‘Downton Abbey’, that perfect misrepresentation of the lives of early 20th century stately home life returns next week to further pantomime-ise the period. Already way beyond the bounds of realism with its Fenian arriviste to the gentry, another bastard child story and a deferential servant class that beggars belief if you read any of the memoirs of real working class people bounded into service with their thankless, sweaty, backbreaking work, it is unlikely that this new series will travel in the opposite direction.
Arm in arm with this nostalgic view of the working class as romantic changelings or happy serviles both ‘The Village’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ promote an establishment that is, to a great degree, capable of sacrifice for the greater good. Whether intentionally or not, the confluence of this reimagining of the rulers of the past with the contemporary reality of that same social class retaining all the levers of power creates an opium to the masses that, were one inclined to conspiracy theory, could be seen as a deliberate attempt to nullify the increasing social differentials being created in the UK, but, in more temperate tones is undoubtedly a balm to the idea of the establishment being as rapacious and power grabbing as their current behaviour and the outcomes of their decisions. Like Dick Dastardly, the baddy upper and middle class characters are foiled by their social equals, the covert message being that the establishment goodies will always look after the poor downtrodden. Which, when you think about it is pretty much what the producer of ‘Benefit Street’ meant when he said this of the previous series:
"It's not demonising the poor. It's a very honest and true portrayal of life in Britain and people are frightened of it. If you are telling me that shining a light on poverty in Britain is pornographic, so we shouldn't pay attention to poor people, I think that's outrageous.”
Until the working class see their own heroes on screen and hear their own voices through the media our culture will replicate out finances; a divided and ever dividing society in which the establishment increasingly talk only to themselves and the rest are excluded from not just the spoils, but the very conversation itself.