The British riots and their reflection in contemporary British pop culture

Slate has an article on the British riots (well, English, since there was no rioting in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), with a headline claiming that British writers and filmmakers had foreseen the social gap that would eventually break open so violently.

It’s a longish article and mostly a general overview of the riots. Only two paragraphs are actually about what the headline promises, namely how writers and filmmakers had tackled the social problems in contemporary Britain before they became too big and too violent to ignore. Behind the cut are the two paragraphs in question:

The political class may have been caught out, but the culture betrayed signs of problems earlier, telegraphing anxieties of the law-abiding citizenry that a brutal underclass might at any moment elbow its way into their homes. Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday tells of a London neurosurgeon who crosses paths with a demented thug, only to have the man invade his life and threaten his family. The book’s resolution is rather optimistic, with the surgeon’s daughter—forced to strip before the thug—managing to subdue him by reading poetry. Another example of these lurking worries appears in David Abbott’s 2010 novel The Upright Piano Player, in which a lonely retired London ad executive is harassed by a violent sociopath, also after an unfortunate chance encounter.

A more cathartic resolution came in the 2009 film Harry Brown, in which Michael Caine plays an aging military veteran who served in Northern Ireland but now finds himself in a miserable housing estate ruled by young criminals. Bloodshed ensues and the old man emerges triumphant. While novels and cinema expressed the fears of establishment Britons, pop culture was taking inspiration from the underclass, as in the comedy-drama series Shameless (now remade in a U.S. version), about a dysfunctional family in Manchester.

So Slate‘s whole sample size of how British writers and filmmakers foresaw the current situation consists of two novels, one film and one TV show. And three of those four examples are written from the perspective of middle class protagonists terrified of “the feral underclass”, including Saturday by that master of middle class mediocrity Ian McEwan (yes, I’m a bad English MA, but I can’t stand McEwan and his smug arrogance). Sorry, but for an article that promises to explore how British writers and filmmakers tackle the extreme class gap that was one cause of the widespread looting and rioting last week, those pitiful examples are just embarrassing.

For starters, how about looking at novels, films and TV shows that actually deal with the working and underclass instead of just using them as boogeymen to scare the comfortable middle class protagonists? Because in order to understand why so many young working and underclass people are angry, it might be useful to look at stories told from their perspective rather than at stories about neurosurgeons and retired military men terrified of teens in hoodies.

The only problem is that there is not a whole lot of contemporary British fiction written from a working class or even underclass perspective. There are a few younger writers write about the lower classes, e.g. Irvine Welsh, Sadie Jones, David Peace, Catherine O’Flynn, Ross Raisin. You also have a number of British authors about the experiences of second and third generation immigrants, most notably Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. But that’s still a far cry from the amount of working class writing there was in the 150s and 1960s and even in the 1980s. Plus, many of the newer works that do tackle the problems of the lower classes are set in the past. For example Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is set in the 1980s, David Peace’s Red Riding quartet is set in the 1970s and early 1980s, Sadie Jones’ The Outcast is set in the late 1950s. In short, if you are looking at contemporary British fiction to explain just why so many young people in Britain are so angry to the point of rioting and looting, you’re looking at the wrong place.

In this context, it is very telling that the looters explicitly left bookstores alone, as reported by The Economist and The Atlantic. The Guardian comes to the conclusion that not only are books not exactly the sort of luxury items that were most commonly stolen by the looters, contemporary literature is also much too middle class to speak to the sort of people most likely to resort to violence and looting.

So what about films then? Some ten to fifteen years ago, British cinema specialized in making inspirational films about plucky working class people overcoming the odds that are stacked against them. The Full Monty and Billy Elliot are probably the best known examples. These films are still made on occasion, last year’s Made in Dagenham is a good example and another retro story since it’s set in the late 1960s. Among the not-so-feel-good working class dramas you have All or Nothing, a family drama set on a council estate, Irina Palm, in which Marianne Faithful plays an impoverished elderly woman driven to work in the sex industry as well as Kidulthood and its sequel Adulthood about troubled teenagers (and later young adults) living in a majorly black neighbourhood in West London. Particularly Kidulthood and Adulthood, which were written and directed by Noel Clarke (Mickey from Doctor Who) are excellent.

On TV, we again have a bunch of recent retro programs which deal with social and class issues, such as Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, This is England, the Red Riding trilogy (based on the quartet of Yorkshire set crime novels by the above mentioned David Peace – no, I don’t know why they omitted 1977 either) and at least two adaptions of the gritty crime novels by Martina Cole. All of these shows, some of which are excellent and some not so much, are set in the 1970s and 1980s. And no, I have no idea why British writers and filmmakers are so often unable to talk about social and class issues except at a distance of twenty or thirty years.

With regard to stories about class issues and particularly the problems facing young people that are actually set in the here and now, the outlook is a lot dimmer. There is Shameless, which is actually mentioned in the Slate article, probably because it has a US remake. Which strikes me as strange, because I cannot imagine a show less suited to an US remake than Shameless. Though they couldn’t really broadcast the original either due to the nigh impenetrable Manchester accents. Benidorm, a comedy about some very working class Brits on holiday in – you guessed it – Benidorm, might fit the bill as well. Probably a couple of other sitcoms as well, I don’t really watch a whole lot of sitcoms, British or otherwise.

Hustle doesn’t fit into this group at first glance, as it is not a show about deprived working class people living in council estates, instead it’s about five very smart conmen and conwomen who deprive the greedy and exploitative off their ill-gotten gains. But under the glossy surface and smart plots, there is a lot of simmering anger about the growing social divide in Britain, as is evidenced by the sort of people the Hustle crew target: greedy bankers, executives who were let go with golden handshakes after cutting thousands of jobs, judges and MPs with no clue of how the less privileged live, etc… Hustle is basically an anti-capitalist revenge fantasy.

Finally, we have what is probably my favourite TV show at the moment, Misfits, which is a hard hitting drama about the British attitude to troubled teens disguised as a comedy about superheroes.

Misfits is entirely set in Thamesmead, the sort of deprived London council estate that burned in the past few days (though there was no rioting in Thamesmead), a place without any hope or jobs. Thamesmead is only a few kilometers downriver from the glittering towers of Canary Wharf or the City, but you’ll never see any of those familiar London landmarks in the background.

Misfits presents the viewer with five juvenile delinquents doing community service, e.g. exactly the sort of “feral youth” that British tabloids are hysterical about (and not entirely without justification, as it turned out). The show gradually plays on the viewers’ prejudices, only to thoroughly subvert them as we get to know the characters, their stories and their backgrounds.

What is particularly notable, especially in the light of recent events, is that Misfits presents a society that has broken down completely. There are no jobs in this world, none of the kids have a chance at higher education (though some of them are smart), even getting hold of a car is difficult. All of the kids come from troubled and broken homes, there are hints of sexual and physical abuse. Authorities are useless and not to be trusted. The police is ineffectual (though represented by a hot black cop) and more interested in apprehending teen drug users, petty thieves and bullying victims striking back (and in one memorable episode, an escaped gorilla) than in going after the real criminals on the estate. The criminal justice system is not interested in reforming anyone – it is very obvious that the community service our heroes are forced to do is largely useless. The probation workers who are supposed to reform our heroes are lazy and useless at best and dangerous sociopaths at worst. Two of them die semi-accidentally at the hands of our heroes – unlamented.

Talking of Misfits, Salon has an interview with Howard Overman, writer and creator of the show.

As he says, the superhero angle is a lot less crucial to the show than the look at how contemporary Britain treats its young people. Indeed, it almost seems as if the superheroics and the humour (Misfits can be hilariously funny) and the bad words and the shagging are the sugarcoating that makes the bitter pill of social criticism go down easier. Though this doesn’t mean that there are no heroics – in fact there are several instances of the kids being heroic. Nathan going up alone, without powers and armed only with a water pistol against the creepy US-style chastity cult in the season 1 finale is certainly heroic. And then there is the entire man with the mask storyline in season 2. However, in Misfits heroism often just gets people killed. Nor is this the sort of “Save the world” heroism found in American examples of the superhero genre. No one saves the world in Misfits, the heroic acts we see (and there are several) are mostly motivated by saving and protecting friends and loved ones. It is love that motivates the man in the mask character, who is the closest Misfits comes to a proper superhero.

Regarding the man in the mask character, whose identity is one of the two big secrets in the show (the other is the nature of Nathan’s powers), I recently rewatched the show with my Mom and we both suspected a completely wrong person of being the man in the mask. I made me wonder why we could both be so wrong, especially as all the signs that pointed to the right answer were there upon rewatching. However, it seems that we both secretly hoped that not all adults and authorities were hopelessly corrupt in Misfits. We both wanted to believe that somewhere an adult was watching out for those kids, no matter how broken their world was. But Misfits doesn’t give us that bit of hope. In this world, it’s very clear that all those kids have is themselves.

So if you want a glimpse at the social conditions that led to widespread rioting in Britain this week, watch Kidulthood and Adulthood and watch Misfits. Don’t bother with Ian McEwan, unless you want a look at the sort of middle class attitudes that certainly helped to fuel the conflict.

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2 Responses to The British riots and their reflection in contemporary British pop culture

  1. Jodie says:

    Really comprehensive look around at what’s being produced now and I think you’re right to say that even in the 80s, maybe even in the 90s and early 2000 there was a lot more stuff around featuring the British working class, thoroughly examined instead of stereotypically presented.

    I’d suggest that British soaps like Eastenders and Coronation Street (maybe Hollyoaks…eh, not sure, it’s been ages since I watched it) spend a lot of time looking at the working classes and are increasingly focusing on the younger generation. Despite going for the uber-drama their long running format provides lots of space for changing presentations that keep every character from becoming and staying stereotypes. And maybe The Street is worth mentioning as well. Although wow that was 3 years ago now!

    • Cora says:

      You’re right, the soaps – which I omitted, because they are not easy to come by outside Britain – do show working class people and they’re not all caricatures.

      I sometimes watch Hollyoaks for old times’ sake, when I’m in the UK, because I used to watch it as a student. From what I’ve seen, they are pretty good at addressing social problems, e.g. I saw bits of an anorexia storyline and a teen pregnancy storyline. They have working class characters, too. I never could get into Eastenders back when I was at university, because it was all white people speaking Cockney living in parts of London that I knew were anything but white. However, the cast seems to be more multicultural now. I haven’t seen much of Coronation Street beyond the clips I sometimes show to my students (the textbooks always include a section on British television which mention soaps, so I figured the students should at least see a few clips). Emmerdale was quite nice, too, though that is more rural.

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