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Hard times for the Chatsworth Buccaneers

April 5, 2009

Fans of Channel Four’s Shameless will have noticed that the current series (number 6) is a rather darker affair than previous outings. The usually blithe and careless Frank Gallagher seems a much more vulnerable figure, hurt by his wife Monica’s infidelity, an utterly uncharacteristic emotion in a show that positively celebrates sexual largesse. Meanwhile Frank’s drug-dealing neighbour Paddy Maguire has been held hostage and injected with heroin, an act of revenge by a grieving mother whose daughter died as a result of a drug addiction that she sees Paddy as having profited from. It seems that this series of Shameless is determined to consider that there are consequences to the sort of hedonism that the show once seemed happy to champion.

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It’s worth remembering that when it was first broadcast on Channel 4  in January 2004, the show’s portrayal of dysfunctional and riotous working class family life coincided with a moral panic in the media about ‘chavs’. But its canny mix of classic British television genres made even the ‘Chatsworth Buccaneers’ look comfortingly familiar. The blend of Carry On humour, northern realism and soap opera gave us a world in which the libidinal urges of its post-industrial poor trumped bourgeois probity every time, all without ever being particularly threatening or radical. Shameless was simply too disinterested in politics to be either.

It is easy to lament this, as a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report did when it argued that the media generally tends to push the question of poverty to the periphery, rarely exploring it directly or critically. Among its targets was Shameless, although it did concede that the Channel 4 serial at least had the virtue of not presenting the impoverished as helpless victims or as somehow to blame for their dire circumstances. And indeed what has always been most enjoyable about Shameless is its vibrant representation of working class life, communicated most effectively in a visual style that combines bold colours, rapid editing and hand held camera work. The effect is to invest the so-called ‘underclass’, usually associated with deprivation and deviance, with energy , fun and resilience.

Shameless sits in a long line of on-screen representations of the English working class that have been integral to the national culture, certainly since the British Documentary Film Movement lifted its image and reputation from the doldrums during the Second World War and invested working class life and experience with a dignity it had not previously enjoyed. Since then filmmakers and television dramatists have both celebrated and fretted over the condition of working class, Shameless being a contemporary example. Yet there is a paradox here. For despite the longevity and ubiquity of dramas about working class life, which incidentally includes the UK’s two most long running and popular soaps, Coronation Street and Eastenders, ‘Britain is moving back towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen more than 40 years ago’, according to another recent Joseph Rowntree report. So, while the working class, on screen at least, are frequently portrayed as the ‘heart and soul’ of the nation, that reputation hasn’t translated into real, material gains for that class. Why?*

I think the answer lies in the generic nature of those films and television programmes that have historically privileged the working class. In Shameless, Frank Gallagher’s idleness is a generic character trait that has its roots in British music hall, sea-side postcard humour and the Carry On films. He is what George Orwell, in an essay on the postcards of Donald McGill, describes as ‘the voice of the belly protesting against the soul’; our ‘unofficial self’ whose ‘tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with ‘voluptuous’ figures. It is he that punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One, to be unfaithful to your wife, to bilk your debts… ‘. In this respect the figure of Frank Gallagher owes more to his generic heritage than social circumstances. But genres aren’t all bad. It is possible to read Frank’s shiftlessness as a rational, almost admirable, response to the immiserating low paid, low-skilled, flexible labour that is the most likely alternative to his idleness. And given that British screen’s tradition of po-faced realism has achieved nothing for the working class, I really hope the ‘new realism’ in Shameless doesn’t see Frank punished for his fecklessness. He may be more ‘voice of the belly’ than voice of the people but even in that there is a protest of sorts against the inequities and inanities of contemporary life.

*Those of you who have read my previous post may detect once again a concern with the disjuncture between culture and politics.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2009 6:17 pm

    I’m not sure one should look – at least not in the first instance – for signs of political self/class consciousness amongst the Gallaghers and their immediate neighbours. The Left has never been very good at speaking to or with (as opposed to for)such people.

    “There is one final division within the working class, which in some ways recalls the divisions of a hundred years ago, though conditions are quite different. It is between those who could take full advantage of the great economic and social improvements of the post-war era and those who couldn’t—if you like, those who would, a century ago, have been called “the poor”. There are the people in persistently low-paid occupations virtually beyond the range of effective trade unions. There are the quarter of all households which get more than half their household income from social security and earn less than £40 a week; the people who live in private rented accommodation as against those who own houses and rent council housing: in 1975 17 per cent of unskilled workers were private tenants as against 11 per cent of skilled workers: the poor who live worse and pay more. …… It is the poor who are disproportionately worse off, and whom the established modes of labour organisations help least directly. A hundred years ago the labour movement recommended its forms of struggle and organisation to everybody—trade unions, co-ops, etc. But it was then not accessible to everybody, but only to favoured strata of workers. Let us ask ourselves whether there isn’t a similar complacency among some sections of the movement today.” Eric Hobsbawm, The Forward March of Labour halted, Marx Memorial Lecture 1978

  2. charliemcmenamin permalink
    April 5, 2009 7:25 pm

    P.S.
    I’m not quite sure what relational model between ‘culture’ and ‘politics’ you’re using here. ‘Culture’ is the mediating link between purely economic relations and directly political ones, surely?

  3. Rab permalink*
    April 6, 2009 9:09 am

    Hi Charlie,
    To answer your PS first: I’m not quite sure what relational model I’m using either, mainly because I just don’t know what ‘culture’ means anymore. Is it everything – a whole way of life, as Raymond Williams put it? Or is there value in retaining some sort of exclusiveness about the concept as Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis would have preferred? Is it a mediating link between the economic and the political? Maybe, but today culture is part of the economy in so far as we have cultural and creative industries. And the point I’m trying to make in the post is that for some culture seems to have become politics.

    On your first comment; I don’t see the media as reflecting society. It is an interpretative and ideological apparatus through which the world is refracted. And actually I think that that is potentially OK. I don’t assume that the media can ever simply present us with a transparent ‘window on the world’. And the problem with producers who think that it can is that they often offer us the semblance of a surface reality that never goes deeper or looks at the world in what can be more revealing abstract terms. As far as Shameless goes, Frank Gallagher bares only a passing resemblance to that section of the working class referred to by Hobsbawm, because Frank’s character owes more to popular British genres than history and social context. Shameless then is free of the shackles of ‘how things really are’, so we might look for all sorts of surprising insights, but it’s curtailed by generic conventions that make it intelligible to a popular audience. Once again, I don’t know what I think of this.

    These blogs can go on indefinitely. I may be here some time trying to work it out!

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