Been snowed with comments on all media about my column for the Sunday Herald on BBC's The Scheme as poverty porn, and my subsequent tv debate with Stuart Cosgrove.
I think the best sustained discussion forum has been 38 Minutes, Channel Four's new media community site in Scotland, where Stuart and I have had some detailed exchanges. See for yourself what the discussion has been like - strong and varied - but I thought I'd edit and present Stuart and I's exchanges here. I'll update if we barney some more (Joan McAlpine has also joined the conversation).
This is an important debate about the role of public media in Scottish life, among good people, worth arguing to a standstill, I think. And as I always say, all play needs its ethic - tv documentary no less. All comments welcome.
The defining sequence in the second episode of The Scheme [first episode here] is where junkie Marvin's girlfriend Dayna is standing on the green beside a cameraman. The shot dips towards the grass for a moment, showing the cameraman's silhouette for a moment, then rises up just in time to catch one of the neighbours socking Dayna shockingly in the face. Now does anyone *really* believe that the camera was simply "documenting" this kind of violence - or were they actually eliciting this kind of behaviour by their presence, like some overly-resourced happy-slapping phonecam video?
This is the gold, the money-shots, that these documentary makers were panning for - the dog shit in the hallway, the wee daughter fingering the condoms on the shelves - as much shock-horror about the failure of the moral character of the poor as they could string into one episode. If you talk to social workers who deal with cases like Marvin and Dayna's, their aim is to get them to "re-story" their lives - to construct a narrative about how they'll progressively head towards a better life, small step by small step.
By turning the chaos of their lives into such a public strip cartoon - Sorcerer's Apprentice sound track and all - the documentary makers rob the poor of the right to control the story of their own lives, which is a fragile, tentative and patience-intensive process best conducted privately and supportively. There's a regrettable faux-lumpen mentality in some stretches of the Scottish creative classes - eg below, "marvin cannae watch the Scheme cos some cunt's nicked his Plasma" - which is actually a way of denying the extreme structural inequality in Scottish life: don't sweat it mucker, we're all heiders together.
No we're not: some of us have the power and responsibility to help the post-post-industrial classes to articulate their visions and regain their autonomy. And some of us are ok with them being antic entertainment, ratings-winning displays of character collapse. Sorry, folks, can't post-modernise this one away.
Yes they were selecting and highlighting for effect like every other form of media and communication from literature to film - really surprised you are so startled and appalled by this Pat
Observational documentary is among one of the most selective and narratively chosen forms of media why would it not do those things?
You can say its clunky in style but to be shocked that it happens is bizarre. Surely you don't believe that this form of television is any more or less about form and convention than other forms of television, like history-reality shows or light entertainment. You can't 'naive' that one away
- The Scheme - Clunky Observational Documentary that uses underclass Scotland as its raw material.
- Sweet Sixteen - Bitter-sweet Ken Loach feature which uses underclass Scotland as raw material.
- Rab C. Nesbitt - Hyper-panto comedy series which uses underclass Scotland as raw material.
- Greyhounds for Breakfast - Great hyper-real literature using underclass Scotland as raw material.
- David Gillander's utterly brilliant photojournalism which won the Getty Prize and uses underclass Scotland as its raw material.
- Channel 4's Knife Crime Commission - discursive current affairs that uses underclass Scotland as its raw material
- Billy Connolly's The Crucifixion - Comedic parody of the Bible which uses underclass Scotland as raw material.
All of the above cultural producers enjoy successful careers and to my knowledge live in very comfortable homes.
So for me the real issue is not whether form should sue unedrclass Scotland as Scotland - that is a time-honoured creative tradition. What is at stake is one of two things - quality or formal construct? Either the form of observational documentary or the quality of the series?
If you hate it as telly that’s fine – I’m not sure I really care to defend that - but get it into some perspective please. To object to film-makers creating a cultural product from this raw subject matter is bizarre, self-defeating and against the grain of history.
Stuart, not remotely denying any documentary maker the right to edit, narrate, shape reality, any of that - silly point. But do you remember a show from the early Channel Four, called Open The Box? They did an item where they filmed a camera crew filming a working class couple, decent but not too articulate, and showed how they were herded around, patronised - the director David Cohen even said at one point, 'never work with children or animals'.
Your channel at its most subversive - showing the objectifying, class-ridden character of so much media production - time for some of that media critique back I think. Here's a commission for you, suggested by a one time resident of Onthank (now a think-tank director): why don't you give the residents of Onthank a few HD cameras, an editing suite, some expertise, and get them to follow tv production folk around for six months?
And yes, you're right, the BBC did have a tradition of community video programming which they let completely fall away. Why don't we revive that in our brand new Scotland? Or can we really imagine the broadcasting Lubiankas on the Clyde really opening their doors to the contextualisng community? We probably need a Media Panther fan-out into the community, Chavez and Gilberto Gil style (and you're writing about Detroit 1967 at the moment, surely you validate that kind of activity?). We need at least two dedicated scottish digital channels to give us some space for different voices, other editorial policies on the reality of Scottish life, to be heard - and more importantly, practise their street-media craft.
But please don't try to deny the loop between a 'punchy', 'character-driven' bit of drama-doc on the broken poor, and the general shift towards 'behavour management' and 'workfare' that's been the legacy of Thatcher-Blair-Cleggaron. This edit sets up the undeserving poor in a way the Victorians would happily recognise, and no doubt Ian Duncan Smith will glory in. (Possibly deliberate? Commissioned at a time when it looked like a Tory victory was inevitable? Just saying...).
I even hate the term underclass we've all fallen into using - a semi-eugenic term from the American neo-conservative right. I think the gaze of this programme, the "casting choices" they've made makes me more disgusted with them everytime I dwell on it. I mean, poor poor Marvin is so emaciated he almost looks like a different species. I'll admit that what does come through their sub-anthropological gaze is a real crisis of masculinity - apart from the patriarch of the Crees, all the men in the first two episodes bear all the pain and distortion of two generations of worklessness, while the girls and women are all mostly ebullient glamazons.
I've no problem about cameras trying to capture the physical reality of poverty - and as many have said here (and to me privately), the sheer witness of the camera in The Scheme might do some good in reviving our collective shame and responsibility about poverty in Scotland. But that'll be in spite of its leering, prissy aesthetic, not because ot it. Where are the Frederick Wiseman emulators in the Scottish documentary commuity?
Tom says: “Oh, and can we stop referring to them as 'characters'. They're real. Aren't they?"
Pat says:”...not remotely denying any documentary maker the right to edit, narrate, shape reality, any of that - silly point."
Far from being silly I think that is the deep core of the debate and the real reason that 'reality Tv or 'reality ob-doc' divide opinion so virulently. We seem more relaxed about forms where the lines between the 'real person' and the 'character' are more clearly drawn. Frank in Shameless is clearly an actor playing a character, the residents of the Big Brother house are real people who have agreed to partcipate in an entertainment game in which they assume the role of 'characters', programmes like X Factor are talent shows in which 'characters' like SuBo surface from the real world to seek fame. The trouble with the scheme is that people are less willing to accept the finer and less obvious lines between real people assuming 'character' status in something so close to 'documentary.'
What is so special about the documentary form that it alone cannot be transgressed - they were real people, with 'characteristics' and in some cases were promoting their 'character' or as some people have sauid 'acting up for the camera'.
In an era where cameras surround us daily why are some people allowed to 'act-up' and others not?
We all "assume character status" in the service economy - we're all asked to construct an attractive, performative self in order to fit in to various service behaviour scripts (whether svengali Simon Cowell's or the training dept of Marks And Spencer's). I'm sure that why all forms of reality tv, either entertainment or community-based, resonate with Britons - it frames, and sometimes unravels, the the process of 'front' (or bullshit if you're feeling negative) that a large chunk of the working population is involved in daily. Not so much 'acting up' as 'acting out' the role that HR departments lay down for them.
I do think there's a deep attraction among the service workforce in watching the couch-dwelling, quilt-hugging wastrels of The Scheme (which is why it's hurtling around their favourite medium, Facebook at the moment). The Schemies are on a permanent sickie, rather than the temporary one that so many take as a respite from the grinding of their soul (and which causes employers such continuing consternation). They are the spectre that Brown used to aim his workfare at - "lying about all day, watching tv, doing nothing" - and that IDS is cranking up the benefit police on.
I guess, Stuart, you think that if all the world these days is a Truman-Show-like mediated stage, then why shouldn't the work-shy poor of the Ten's have their unashamed moment performing themselves in the spotlight, in the same way as two upper-working-class 80s boys from Coatbridge thought they could make music like Quincy Jones?
But it's not the same, is it? If you're an artist - and I'd have to say, if you were the writer and director of Shameless or Rab C. Nesbitt, undoubtedly writing from their own experiences - your performance is an expression of mastery or skill or vision, or at least an aspiration towards that. You also at some deep level want your 'performance' to tie together some aspects of the human condition, touch some deeper truths. Do you really think Marvin and Dayna are being 'artists of their lives', that they are enjoying their rights to 'act-up' their incoherence and incompetence at daily living, in the same way?
A working-class artist writes their script, or their song, and feels empowered, enlarged - they've conducted an act of poiesis, they've made their mark on the world. What psychological impact do we think this media spectacle of their ruin, however 'acted-out or up' it is, will have on the more heartbreaking participants in The Scheme - and do the documentary makers even care? Or as some of us keep saying, are they basically just raw fodder for a media which is exploiting the status and performance anxieties of a too-competitive, too-marketised nation, by showing them either redemptive or cautionary narratives of self-construction?
That's why I keep coming back to a rethinking of community tv - and why 38 Minutes is a good place to have this discussion. Do we always need be trapped within the editing suites of Tellyworld when we think of a media that empowers those who need to be empowered? With social media, it's not about the right to edit or perform, but the democratisation of the means and skills of editing and performance.
I know this all sounds 'back to the future'/early 80's - but perhaps our world of ubiquitous, cheap and powerful media was exactly the infrastructure those community video makers were dreaming of. Enable that, Channel Four, and you eventually might get the documentary equivalent of a Kelman, coming out of nowhere predictable, rather than these well-fashioned penny-dreadfuls like The Scheme. Let people ACTUP, in the manner of the 80's aids-activist moment, rather than just 'act-up'.
It's not the middle classes who congregate around The Scheme and set up facebook groups about Marvin's plasma telly. It's other working class people - most Scots are just a generation away from a council house and still have family on schemes. The voice of the breezeblocks has no problem getting itself heard thanks to social networking. The faceboook fans of the show exchange anecdotes about the drug addicts and neds making their granny's life a misery in Drumchapel/Kilmarnock/Greenock or wherever. They recognise the Onthank "characters". But the views they express about benefit dependence, poor parenting and methadone prescription, are far more judgemental than anything the programme makers would dream of saying. They make a Daily Mail leader seem overly liberal. (If I may be allowed my own Daily Mail moment, why the hell was poor Dayna on a methadone programme at the age of 18? Was there really no alternative? It was the social workers, not the programme makers, who did that.) Unlike Pat I think the programme was fair and showed the complex side of many characters - particularly that of Gordon Cunningham, trying to raise his family and make amends for his own past mistakes. The only ethical issue I have is with the young child Kendal who was unable to give informed consent and who doesn't really need this difficulty added to the other burdens in her life ie her hopeless mother.
One aspect of The Scheme's popularity that has been overlooked in these discussions is it's uncompromising Scottishness. We hardly every see slices of contemporary Scottish life on telly, or hear people speaking this language - the skeletal, linguistic remains of Burns' Kilmarnock Edition. When we do, we find it hilarious. That's why the character's "catchphrases" are now being printed on t-shirts. Mark is right to compare it to the John Smeaton moment. But what does our excitement and hilarity on hearing Scots enter the mainstream say about our attitute to the language we still speak on occasion, and which our parents and grandparents used unselfconciously? We love to hear it, but we simultaneously cringe. It's fit only for comedy shows. We mock these characters because, unlike us, they are unable (or unwilling) to adjust their speech patterns for the occasion.
fOR MORE SEE http://times.cluster.newsint.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article7140118.ece
Pat says about the nature of people 'performing' But it's not the same, is it? If you're an artist - and I'd have to say, if you were the writer and director of Shameless or Rab C. Nesbitt, undoubtedly writing from their own experiences - your performance is an expression of mastery or skill or vision, or at least an aspiration towards that. You also at some deep level want your 'performance' to tie together some aspects of the human condition, touch some deeper truths. Do you really think Marvin and Dayna are being 'artists of their lives', that they are enjoying their rights to 'act-up' their incoherence and incompetence at daily living, in the same way?
I entirely agree with this there is a difference and there is a qualitiative gulf between the two things. But I am reluctant to say that Paul Abbot's right to recreate his families failings as the semi-autobiographical author of Shameless - a series I care a lot about, therefore prevents others from authoring their lives even if it is with less creativity. If that were the case a lot of created culture would fall away. Is 'showing off' in The Scheme so markedly different from say being drunk at a local karaoke, or being so incoherent you actually can't perform which is what I've seen from both Gil Scott Heron and The Pogues over the years. I'm nervous about a hierarchy that says some have permission to 'perform' via the mass media and others don't and that the permission will be granted by those that already enjoy the privilege of success in life.
Stuart, yes, I guess I'm making an artist's critique of the kind of "presenting" and performance that's going on in The Scheme. Kimberley's dance competition was utterly fantastic - like an irruption of Rio and Berlin into the middle of Ayrshire. (Away with yir El Sistema - I could have done with a whole documentary about that event). But apart from that, are there no local bands there, no hackers into technology, no menshie wall-sprayers? What courses, therapies, classes were happening at the community centre that WAS built? No joiners/decorators/sparks who were applying their compulsive ingenuity to local projects, house extensions? Looking at poor communities through the lens of what craft and skills they have gives a different result than picking off the worst or near-worst families and turning them into self-subverting strip cartoons. We know the old names to guide us by - Paulo Friere, Augusto Boal, recently Richard Sennett - and there are a few new ones too (Simon Yuill's history of bringing notational skills into tough communities comes to mind).
My youngest bro told me of a call he heard on Real Radio - a guy claiming to have been covered by The Scheme's makers for six months, in which he built up a help website to aid diabetes sufferers, and got married to his childhood sweetheart. He'd been told he hadn't make the cut - "maybe my story was too boring", he'd said. I know from my correspondence that there are many more, subtler stories to be told about Onthank than we're getting here - to grant this edit the generic title of 'The Scheme' is a complete misnomer about life in these communities. I hope one of the consequences of the stushie around this show is that we could perhaps get a web-enabled 'Stories from The Scheme' - stories not used, longer testimonies from people, interesting sideline material, follow-ups on the fate of individuals. And perhaps BBC could revise its editing policy, and invite those filmed into the heart of the production process - an education for both sides, very possibly.
Joan, you're right about the Scots-language element not being remarked upon - thought as a veteran of the Poll Tax wars, you'd probably want a Scots that had a lot more militancy and political consciousness than here. But on methodone and housing - we just don't know what stage of care any of these characters are at, how well others are doing round about them: it's a snapshot of the worst families entirely shorn of any of the systems that are undoubtedly trying to handle them, part of my beef about the prurient selectiveness of the series - showing the pathology, not the sociology. Something less pornographic (yes, still using the term) and fetishizing of the poor wouldn't get the Facebook groups frothing.