Hard times for the Chatsworth Buccaneers
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.
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.