In the jungle that is broadcast television different genres often exhibit quite different relationships with the truth. Top of the truthfulness table must be ‘reality shows’, Big Brother and its successors. BB surveilled its contestants 24/7 and it really did show people doing what they purported to be doing. No lies there, all falsity was left entirely to the house mates. TV Drama, perhaps paradoxically, also scores quite highly on this scale. I’ll grant you that it does weave a false reality through established cinematic conventions but since we viewers have willingly suspended our disbelief we can hardly accuse it of lying. Only the sub-genre of historical drama should be obliged to account for the dodgy stories it tells about the past. At the very bottom of this league table, however, lies a genre loaded with falsehood. Known in the trade as ‘factual’, these programmes cover science, history and the like. What they tells us may well be true but the genre itself is, by its nature, so mired in mendacity that it merits a paragraph all to itself.
‘I’m on a journey to discover …’ chirrups the presenter. ‘No you’re not,’ choruses the audience, ‘Whatever information you are about to impart long preceded the journey you are on. You knew it already. Your “journey” is, in fact, no more that a construct designed, among other things, to allow the director to use shots of you in a taxi/rickshaw/gondola rather than find images which are actually appropriate to the content of the programme. Why do you have to lie to us?’ There are many other, less overt, examples of this kind of thing but you get the point.
Victorian Slum (BBC 2, Episode 1/5, 10 October 2016) is a hybrid. At its core is yet another genre: ‘Living History’, an interesting variant whose origins are in Living in the Past, a BBC series from the seventies. For that production, fifteen people lived is an iron age hut for thirteen months. Lives were changed, animals skinned, relationships lost and won. Before the days of constant surveillance a camera crew visited only twice a week but the result was ground-breaking with an honesty score so high that the series almost counts as a scientific experiment.
Five families were similarly brought together for Victorian Slum, although only for six weeks. The reconstructed hovels they inhabited were in the right part of London and certainly looked convincing on camera, although I missed the colonies of bugs living between wall and wall-paper which were apparently a feature of such places. I don’t think you can get them nowadays.
The families were given roles which they took seriously: a shopkeeper, a man with a wooden leg (he had arrived with a hi-tech prosthetic) who runs a doss house and doubles as a rent collector, a single mother with two children and a family whose father has the gift of making a passable hat out of a pair of old trousers. Here was potential for empathy as well as drama but the programme wasted time by opening with the other component of the hybrid: factual TV. Presenter, Michael Mosely, filled ten minutes with classic stuff, jumping from walking-shot to walking-shot to thumping music, summarising the entire programme as he gave us the facts, which would then be oft repeated as we saw the families live out their TV lives.
The situation was very clear: hard austerity beyond the wildest dreams of any Tory chancellor (to its credit, the programme did not shy away from modern comparisons with e.g. zero-hour contracts). As the first rent day approached we did begin to get a feeling of narrative tension as we saw how slight misfortunes could have catastrophic consequences in a slum. If you hurt your back and cannot work, the children have to work instead; if glueing boxes together is not your forte your children are looking at an instant accommodation downgrade.
But the intrusion of the factual information made the programme seem long – there are only so many times you can be told that failure to pay your rent would lead to the doss house. Commentary intruded with repetitious banality (“they live cheek by jowl” … “in abject poverty” … “but it wasn’t all doom and gloom” Spare us!). When we did see the people interacting for themselves it was too often through an awkward medley of partially staged interactions and sound bites gathered after the fact. I began to miss the long, honest gaze of (I never thought I would say this) Big Brother.
But, like smiles in a slum, occasional good moments did shine through. Among the inevitable tears and irritability one participant, Rebecca Howarth, distinguished herself by crying not for her uncomfortable situation but for her ancestors who would never know the pleasant life that she had enjoyed thanks to their labours. Anyone who can see the poignancy of the passage of time is in a position to learn from history. The end of the programme gave us one very important insight. All the participants, whether they were playing prole or bourgeois, saw it clearly: people in poverty have no choices, they are simply borne along by an unjust and merciless system over which they have no control. You can say that again.
Victorian Slum is on Mondays at 9pm on BBC2 and is available on iplayer.