Skip to Content

Television

Poverty porn

British poverty is normally a subject for comedy, rather than documentary.

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

British poverty is normally a subject for comedy, rather than documentary. Scotland gave the world Rab C. Nesbitt with his string vest and indecipherable accent. Channel 4 had Shameless, the capers of a family ruled by drink and drugs. The BBC has now brought us the real thing: The Scheme (BBC1, Tuesday), a fly-on-the-wall portrayal of the lives of six families in a welfare ghetto in East Ayrshire. It was a smash hit in Scotland, where it was aired last year, and the BBC is now trying it on the rest of the country (with subtitles, naturally).

The characters look as if they were chosen for a Trainspotting sequel. We are introduced to Marvin, a recovering heroin addict who lives with his bull terrier, Bullet. Or did, until he was arrested and had to leave the dog with the new girlfriend. She grew lonely (and tired of his beating her) so she upped sticks. We have a surly teenager, Bryan — or did, until he was imprisoned for a racially aggravated incident in a local post office

The main characters are Gordon and Annie Cunningham, reformed alcoholics trying to ensure that their children don’t follow their example. The first episode opens with them persuading Kimberley, their daughter, to be back from a night out by 10 pm. She obeys, and later they chat about her evening. ‘Declan stood in, and started battering into Jamie,’ she says with a laugh. ‘I think Jamie broke his rib, ’cos he’s curling up in a ball, screaming.’ At just 15 years old, she finds such behaviour normal.

Her older brother, Chris, is heading more quickly to disaster. ‘What will you do with your life?’ we hear his mother ask. He laughs. ‘What does anyone do with their life? Hang about. Drink. That’s it. There’s nothing else to do except go out and get wrecked.’ This is what Chris, aged 20, thinks the future holds for him.


Misadventure comes easily to Chris. He ends up being given £400 of cocaine to sell, but snorts it instead. The dealers threaten to ‘slash him’ (cut his face with a razor), according to his mum. His dad sees the gravity of the situation, and resolves to pay the debt. Chris has a 15-year-old girlfriend, Candice, and calls on her at 2 am. After being sent away, he smashes a bottle of Buckfast on her mother’s car. We see Gordon Cunningham musing with brutal honesty on his son’s slow-motion downfall. ‘I blame myself,’ he says. ‘Chris saw me drinking when he was young. Now he’s doing the exact same thing.’

After Candice turns 16, she becomes pregnant with Chris’s baby. She decides to keep it, knowing that a child is a passport to a house and a life on benefits, releasing her from the need to go to college. Her mother, Kay, is seen wondering if the pregnancy might somehow be connected to her letting Chris sleep with her daughter. ‘Feel it’s my fault for letting Chris stay here,’ she says, as if the thought has just occurred.

The Scheme is not just ‘poverty porn’, the label applied to series such as Wife Swap and Supernanny. It lets the characters explain themselves, and shows their kindness alongside their often self-destructive stupidity. The viewer finds it hard to condemn. It’s clear that if you take work away, dump people in a welfare ghetto, bankroll social failure things quickly fall apart. Such places are called ‘schemes’ in Scotland because the estate is usually a government scheme. The idea was to replace the Glasgow slums with new estates. The result of the scheme is the creation of the most expensive poverty in the world.

The BBC has, predictably, been condemned for misrepresenting the estate. If only. The Scottish authorities specialise in measuring the poverty they incubate, so we have the statistics. In the area concerned (Altonhill North & Onthank) seven out of ten children grow up in welfare-dependent households. Some 43 per cent of mothers smoke throughout pregnancy. A boy born there is likely to die sooner than a boy born in Iraq. Such statistics are true for hundreds of similar estates nationwide.

The Scheme exposes a hidden Britain, where literally millions of people live. Its second episode commanded a 41 per cent audience share in Scotland, a record for a documentary. I suspect this is because many watched it (as I did) thinking ‘that could have been me’. Who, if born into such circumstances, could be confident of overcoming them?

Iain Duncan Smith was converted to his social justice agenda by visiting the Easterhouse scheme in Glasgow. The Scheme should have the same galvanising effect. It is a vivid, powerful and shaming reminder of how Britain is still leaving its poor to rot.


Show comments
Close