Hideously Middle-Class: The BBC's White Season Equates Working-Class Culture with Racism and the BNP, and Exposes Unsavoury Values at the Heart of the Corporation, Writes Lynsey Hanley
Hanley, Lynsey, New Statesman (1996)
"The white working class in Britain is put under the spotlight this winter on BBC2," says the press release for the BBC's much-trailed White Season. What, all of it, all at once, for the rest of us to look at? One big pale lump, like a ball of lard, with nary an individual face to be seen nor opinion to be heard? Hmm, thought so. "White Season"--even the name makes it sound like a trip to the zoo.
Roly Keating, controller of BBC2, feels so ashamed at having ignored this group, insofar as it requested his attention en masse, that he has commissioned an entire season of programmes about white working-class people that stops just short of saying, "No wonder they all vote BNP."
It includes a film about a declining working men's club in racially divided Bradford; a documentary that asks, nakedly and without shame, "Was Enoch right?"; a drama about a girl living in (again) racially divided Bradford; and a Story-ville essay about multiracial Barking, east London, which has a large handful of British National Party councillors.
The clear intention is to distance the BBC from the idea and practice of multiculturalism, and to make itself look as though it is engaging with contemporary issues, while being highly selective about the way it chooses to do so. The innumerable challenges of being working-class in a liberalised economy--never mind the challenges of being working-class full stop--are reduced, in this season, to race and immigration alone, with those (and only those) who are white cast as passive victims of policies they didn't choose.
But here is the news: deindustrialisation, deregulation, poor pay and prospects, low educational standards, bad or insecure housing, pressured living environments and lack of control disproportionately disadvantage working-class people, whether they are white or not. Not that you would know it from watching any of these programmes.
People such as Dave from All White in Barking, who declares he would rather drown himself than be followed from Barking to Canvey Island by "the Africans", haven't been "forgotten" by a changing world: they have deliberately turned their backs on change. Others, like the secretary of the club featured in Henry Singer's film Last Orders, have become overwhelmed by self-pity, which leads them to regard voting for fascists (we are led to believe he has done so, though he does not state this on film) as a noble vote of protest.
The BBC's dedicated website for the season asks, "Is white working-class Britain becoming invisible?"--a suggestion as extraordinary as it is disingenuous. British culture is underpinned by working-class tastes, comforts, vocabulary and prejudices: popular television; football; Greggs the baker; multimillion-selling tabloids; talent contests; sportswear labels; big settees; "real-life" magazines; slimming clubs; package holidays; "us" and "them".
Can it truly be said that any of these common features of working-class life has been affected in any way by non-white immigration or by the mores of a metropolitan liberal elite? No, because it's the other way around. You can find working-class people of all races queuing for steak bakes, buying the Sun for the sport, wearing tracksuits or football tops, and moaning about foreigners and the opposite sex. Most middle-class people wouldn't be seen dead doing the same. The only people who regard such activities as "invisible" are those who spend their lives running a mile from them. For everyone else, they are so normal that they scarcely imagine others might find their lives worthy of a TV series. Working-class lives in Britain are invisible only insofar as they have almost always been invisible to those who comprise the country's power base.
There have been few points in our history at which working people have been regarded as "the backbone of the nation"; their contribution, in the form of blood, sweat, toil and vastly shortened lifespans, to the affluence brought about by the Industrial Revolution was ignored until they were asked to fight in 1914 and were found, in many cases, to be too physically depleted to do so. …