The Estate: ‘tell it like it is…’
If you’re a BBC production team making a fly-on-the-wall documentary on working class housing estate then it’s very difficult not to come across like you’re on safari. There’s a hint of this about BBC Northern Ireland’s The Estate, which is billed as a ‘behind closed doors’ look at Coleraine’s Ballysally Estate, following the lives of some of the residents across 12 months – ‘when money’s tight and times are tough.’
To be fair to the programme it’s nowhere near as objectionable as it could have been nor is it guilty of some of the things I’ve heard it accused.
Last week its producers appeared on BBC Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show (26 January 2011) to defend their work against the charge that it presents its working class subjects as grotesques. That’s unfair and inaccurate. From what I’ve seen so far it’s contributors have been presented in a sympathetic or largely non-judgemental light.
Martin, the alcoholic on disability benefits, emerges as likeable and philosophic about his condition.
Jimmy and Denise Doherty appear as devoted parents whose working lives mean that they don’t see much of each other. Jimmy works for little more than the minimum wage and sleeps on the settee when he comes home from his late-shift so as not to waken Denise before she heads off to her job as a classroom assistant.
Then there’s young Kyle, looking for work and women to ‘ride’, who beneath all the bravado is just an awkward boy who doesn’t quite fit his own skin yet.
Most audience derision will, I suspect, be reserved for fifteen year old Kelly-Anne, whose truancy threatens to land her mother in prison. She flounces around like she’s waiting for her life to begin, playing up for the cameras as if at last receiving the attention and celebrity that has long been due her. She has no obvious talents or uses. Indeed she seems, to all intents and purposes, a walking hole in the air. Yet, she fulfills the role alloted her very well, playing the bored, stroppy teenager. If you were ever young you’ll recall the symptoms. I like her, mainly because she’s an affront to good taste and that most nefarious of ideological constructions, ‘ordinary, decent, hardworking family men and women’, which in The Estate is ably represented by the Dohertys.
But therein lies the real problem with The Estate: it feels like its people are cast in particular roles for a script that was written long before the programme makers turned up in Ballysally. As a consequence it’s very difficult to see what the point of the series is.
In the good old days, documentary was defined by filmmakers like Humphrey Jennings and John Grierson, who in 1930s and 40s were part of broader struggle for more democratic and inclusive forms of cultural and political representation. They brought working class subjects to the screen, illuminating and dignifying them in ways that had never been seen before.
What’s The Estate’s grand mission? Its producer and director, Natalie Maynes, offers some insight into this. Apparently it’s about telling the untold stories of ordinary people, ‘who tell it like it is – in their own words’. But that’s just it, you see. They don’t tell it like it is – in their own words. They tell it through the generic conventions of fly-on-the-wall documentary and reality TV. They tell it through the professional practices and editorial judgements of the production team. They tell it under the auspices of a public service broadcaster that is frightened to speak truth to power. On The Nolan Show, Maynes talked revealingly about the people who participated in the series, describing them as ‘characters’, while elsewhere referring to their ‘real-life dramas’, a horribly clichéd term that gives the impression people are merely subject to the imperatives of narrative and plot, rather than broader social forces.
In fact The Estate has open-ended, multi-narratives, an array of character-(stereo)types, but beyond telling us that Ballysally has high unemployment and that the series was shot in the teeth of an economic crisis, there is no serious attempt to contextualise the lives of the people there. The assumption being that the economic and political forces that give shape to the area are as elemental as the north coast line, an ariel shot of which opens the first episode. That’s why The Estate owes a greater debt to the generic conventions of soap opera than the political and social concerns of documentary.
Although set in Northern Ireland, The Estate illustrates the crisis of working class representation that much of Owen Jones book Chavs is concerned with. He highlights how the decimation of British heavy industries under Margaret Thatcher and the selling off of council housing had a catastrophic effect upon working class communities. Added to that is the Labour Party’s abandonment of its founding constituency and the declining influence of the trades unions.
Jennings and Grierson had the advantage of making documentaries at a time when the working class were growing in political influence. Today’s reality TV and fly-on-the-wall is a symptom of the absence of such influence. As a consequence the working class are an object of middle class prurience and condescension.