Authenticity, realism and the role of self-hatred in modern British drama

I do not wish to suggest that the Loach / Leigh films are ‘bad', merely that there are factors at work that explains why they are often given a pretty easy ride. Basically, critics and audience alike have a skewed idea of reality and a good deal of self-loathing. To understand these factors we must first take a look at Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Authenticity, realism and the role of self-hatred in modern British drama

 

This is a rant that explores how the middle and the working classes are portrayed in films and on television. These portrayals are generally one-sided and simplistic and are partly based on philosophical ideas that were sloshing around hundreds of years ago. The stereotypes are so prevalent we barely take notice of them and yet they form the basis of almost all drama. This rant will allow people to understand why we make the films we do, and why the people in them are portrayed the way that they are. Welcome to middle class self-loathing.

 

(I)

 

'A woman who's spent all day washing and cleaning and ironing does not want to watch a film about a woman who spends all day washing, cleaning and ironing.'

-Alfred Hitchcock

 

Mike Leigh mentioned the above quote whilst in conversation with fellow director Lynne Ramsay. Quite why this rather self-congratulatory chat was deemed fit to print by The Guardian newspaper is an editorial decision that need not detain us here. What will detain us is their reaction to the quote.

 

ML: Total bullshit, isn't it?

LR: I think so.

 

Hitchcock was talking, I presume, about the desire of most filmgoers to watch escapist entertainment. Any glance at the top ten films over here and in the US tells us that Hitchcock was right. Whilst there have obviously been exceptions to this rule the charts are usually chock-full of action, science fiction and fantasy films. This is self-evident. What is Mike Leigh talking about then? Well, I suppose he is talking about the films that he makes. These frequently offer a different form of escapism – escapism into the world of the working class. Given Leigh's reaction to the Hitchcock quote the following thought runs through one's head: who does Mike Leigh think watches his films? Does he think that the Screen on the Green in Islington is rammed full of doughty working class folk enjoying All or Nothing? If such thoughts really do flit through his mind then he is, quite simply, an idiot. No, the vast majority of people who go and see his films, and those of Ken Loach, are middle class. So too are the critics who routinely praise these paeans to working class life. I do not wish to suggest that the Loach / Leigh films are 'bad', merely that there are factors at work that explains why they are often given a pretty easy ride. Basically, critics and audience alike have a skewed idea of reality and a good deal of self-loathing. To understand these factors we must first take a look at Jean Jacques Rousseau.

 

(I)

 

It was Rousseau, above all other philosophers, who propagated the idea of the noble savage. Rousseau hated the false sincerity of society: he hated the rich, the cultured and the sophisticated. He despised experts and intellectuals. He associated the sophisticated with the artificial, the highbrow with the fastidious and the priggish. Why? Well, for one reason Rousseau was a petit-bourgeois snob filled with inferiority complexes. As far as he was concerned the good man was simple, poor and distinctly rough around the edges. Okay, he might not behave quite as we would like him to but better honest savagery than the odious hypocrisies of the well to do. (See Isaiah Berlin's essay on Rousseau in Freedom and Its Betrayal). This idea of the noble savage is everywhere in our culture and I discuss various examples later on in the rant.

 

As well as the idea of the noble savage there is another factor at work in the way that the middle and working classes are portrayed. The middle classes have tended (largely though the influence of the church) to see their virtues as rather prosaic moral habits – thrift, prudence, chastity, obedience and so on (see Holy Terror by Terry Eagleton). The problem with these virtues is that they are terribly undramatic. It is hard to imagine making a rip-roaring film based on such principles. More than that, in much of western society the decline of the church has meant that what were once perceived to be virtues are no longer understood as such. Chancellors might talk about prudence but no one appears to be listening. Chastity is no longer noble but uptight and weird. Obedience is about deference and we don't do deference any more. The upshot is that the middle classes have no virtues left – those that they had now show them to be emasculated and prissy whereas their deficiencies (as described by Rousseau) are accepted as a matter of course.

 

(II)

 

An example or two should make things clearer. The characters in Shameless all fit the noble savage template. They are rough, street smart, cheeky, full of life and deep down have a heart of gold. I love Shameless and I like the fact that it is, despite first appearances, a fairy tale, or a series of them. Dallas was probably a more accurate depiction of the milieu it set out to portray. Every episode is full of crime and anti-social behaviour but there is always a happy ending; love wins out, as does friendship, acceptance and understanding. Paul Abbot, the creator of Shameless, was brought up on a council estate in Burnley so you would expect there to be 'realistic' elements to the programme. I'm sure there are. But it is also an idealised depiction. There is the alcoholic, drug-taking father who still manages to come through and do the decent thing when required. The gay son is accepted. Paul Abbot has stated that many of his family members are racist but racial problems don't exist on the estate where Shameless is set. When a labour councillor came into the local pub and made racist remarks to the Anglo-Asian shopkeeper the whole pub rose as one to denounce him.

 

Authority figures, whether they are from the church, the schools or the social services are always outsmarted. They are weak and in the face of the noble savages they are always bested. The police are either incompetent bunglers or are involved in dodgy deals themselves. A recent episode featured one of the family members using the loft to grow dope. One of the policemen involved in the raid had slept with the gay son. The policeman, unable to be open with his colleagues, helped the boy but - disgusted with himself - told him never to see him again. The loft was being used to supply drugs to a family of homicidal hoodlums that rule the estate through violence and intimidation. Their daughter distributed drugs whilst taking her baby out in the pram. The episode was very good and very, very funny. And full to the brim of noble savages.

 

The opposite of Shameless is Festen. Just as I love Shameless I think Festen is a great film too. (I know Festen isn't a British film but it garnered rave reviews here and is too good an example to avoid. Gosford Park would do too but the examples are legion.) Here we see the full range of middle class self-loathing. It's about a wealthy family dinner party where everyone is unhappy and where there are horrific family secrets. Education and wealth have not brought any semblance of freedom or happiness. In fact they are trapped in a prison of their own decadent double standards, as suffocated and constrained by their attachment to unobtainable moral virtues as they are by their dinner suits and dresses. Middle class viewers cheer on the characters in Shameless and despise those in Festen. There but for the grace of God, they think, when watching the latter. The powerfulness of the stereotyping and the extent of the self-loathing form a potent combination.

 

(III)

 

These stereotypes are so prevalent that we don't even notice them anymore. In Porridge it is Fletcher, the habitual working class criminal, who is more noble and decent than Mackay the prison guard. Del Boy and Rodney's crimes are excused because they are such loveable characters. There are lots of reasons why certain characters are so loved – Fletcher, for example, is the 'little man' standing up to pompous authoritarian figures and we always like to see them come a cropper. Anyway, to return to the central thread of the rant, we have seen reasons why drama has come to be the way it is and we have also seen examples of it. But there is still more to come. The middle class are now in the process of losing touch with their reality altogether. Let me show you what I mean.

 

I was listening to the radio recently when there was a piece on the 25th anniversary of Neighbours. Philip Pulman defended the programme against a woman determined to put the boot in. The woman, whose name I have forgotten, was an editor from a woman's glossy fashion magazine. She had a cut-glass home counties accent. Neighbours was unrealistic, she said. She much preferred Eastenders because it was more realistic and because it was more relevant to her life. What on earth was she on about? There are two aspects to her view that we need to think about here.

 

The first is the woman's association with Eastenders as opposed to Neighbours. The latter is set in the suburbs and features a predominantly middle class cast. Doctors, teachers, lawyers and businessmen are amongst the characters. The magazine editor might live closer to the fictional area of Walford but it is highly unlikely that her upbringing resembles life in Albert Square. In what way does Eastenders reflect her life? The second aspect of her view is even more perverse. Neighbours is a largely prosaic soap, necessarily incestuous as all soaps are (as too are novels such as War and Peace), with only occasional flights of fancy. The return of Harold Bishop might be ridiculous but most storylines follow the ups and downs of peoples' lives. Eastenders, on the other hand is patently ludicrous. For one thing it is the murder capital of Britain – so realistic is it that one man has managed to be murdered twice. Everyone is up to something dodgy and everyone's life is blighted by tragedy or, more likely, tragedies. It is a ridiculous programme. In what possible way is it more realistic than Neighbours?

 

The reason that the woman thought this is because in denying themselves their own reality the middle classes attach themselves to working class reality instead. They have no idea what they are talking about, and so they will say that Eastenders is realistic, just as they will say that Shameless is realistic. A similar thing can be seen with regards to music. Discussion of The Artic Monkeys has either focussed on their rise via the internet or their lyrics. So we see middle class critics fall over themselves to talk of how the band is reflecting 'real' life. Well, these bands are reflecting somebody's reality. The reason that the lyrics are focussed on to such an extent (witness critics making fools of themselves by likening Mike Skinner to Dostoyevsky) is because they are working class realities. Fights, drugs, petty crime – this is what is meant by the working class reality. And so we come to realise that for the middle class 'reality' is actually a synonym for squalor.

 

Eastenders, under these rules, is more realistic than Neighbours. The life of a heroin addict on a Glaswegian council estate is more real than the life of a commuter. To make a 'real' and 'authentic' programme you should ideally look first to stories about young people involved with crime and drugs. Now then, a programme about a heroin addict is probably going to be more dramatic than that of a suburban commuter. No one is going to doubt that the dramatic possibilities here - on the surface at least – will more visceral and intense. But are they going to be any more real? A film's reality no longer means how representative it is of the milieu it is portraying. Instead it simply means how much transgressive behaviour is contained in it. Is Neighbours less realistic than Eastenders? I would suggest not but according to the rules it sure is.

 

(IV)

 

I hope that by now we have a pretty good idea of why certain programmes are made and why they receive the critical reception that they do. To recap: the working class are seen as noble savages and middle class virtues are either undramatic or have ceased to be seen as virtues at all. This has meant that the middle class exhibit a form of self-loathing that denies them their own reality. If they are to be portrayed it must be in a negative light. This denial of their own reality means that the middle class try and identify reality solely with the working class experience but what this really means is that they identify reality with poverty and squalor. The greater the squalor the greater the reality. Certain programmes and films are therefore seen to be of value precisely because they examine 'realistic' themes. It does not matter if the people portrayed are bland and ridiculous caricatures – the people reviewing and watching these films will want to identify with the characters and will think of them as 'realistic' no matter how nonsensical everything is. Middle class self-loathing means that these films get easy rides.

 

It is also interesting to look briefly at two other pieces of work that illuminate the problems drama in this country faces. Now then, I haven't seen Sex Lives of the Potato Men but it was a film that garnered a terrible critical reaction. Why? Well, obviously it might be terrible, but it was also clear from the reviews that here was a film (made by someone who claims to be working class) that broke the template: there was a distinct lack of nobility about the characters involved. The noble savage needs to have the former for the middle class to appreciate her. Take that away and frankly they are just revolted. Secondly, if you want to make a character truly odious make it a working class person with middle class aspirations. This sort of person is even worse than one of the middle class because they wish to trade in their nobility and join the feeble hypocrites. Hyacinth Bucket and Mrs Fawlty are examples but the most obvious one comes to us courtesy of Mike Leigh. The play Abigail's Party is much loved but what it actually says is this: Know Your Place. Do not try and ape the sophistications of the middle class because a) you will appear ridiculous and b) why on earth do you want to ape them for in the first place? Note that the people who dump on petit bourgeois aspirations are usually middle class themselves.

 

(V)

 

'A woman who's spent all day washing and cleaning and ironing does not want to watch a film about a woman who spends all day washing, cleaning and ironing.'

-Alfred Hitchcock

 

Hitchcock's observation still holds true because the cinemagoers that watch women and men living humdrum lives do not have such lives themselves. Many will probably have cleaners. It is a bizarre spectacle – the middle class watching ersatz portrayals of the working class and revelling in their own self-loathing. They then leave the cinema, go to a noodle bar or a Thai restaurant and say how terrible Tony Blair is before returning to a way of life that ensures the perpetuation of the problems that so excised them the evening before. Such is the power of the self-loathing and the power of the spectacle. (In Mr. Foster's previous rant we saw the spectacle of peasant chic in the world of dining. Here the middle classes pay hugely inflated prices so that they can eat peasant food off rustic tables. As Mr. Foster noted, they like their dirt to be clean, just as they like their noble savages to be on the screen and not in their street.) If you have made it so far you might well ask: Does any of this really matter? I would suggest that there are two reasons why this stereotyping matters. For one thing it would be nice to be able to turn on the TV and not know from the type of people involved who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. In westerns the baddies wore black, now they wear a suit. Equally it would be good to get away from the whole reality = squalor nonsense which is deeply patronising and voyeuristic.

 

For the second reason let's return to the episode of Shameless that I mentioned. What would life be like for people living on an estate where drug dealing was rife and was carried out by a vicious gang of thugs? The vast majority of crimes are carried out against poor people. Personal attacks, burglaries and anti-social behaviour in general are far more likely to occur on a council estate than on a suburban housing estate. Shameless makes the issue funny and it also suggests that such people can, and would rather, look after themselves. The police and social services always just make things worse. This is potentially dangerous stuff and we should be wary of such attitudes.

 

Words: Chris Dawson.