Issue 184 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review


In a class of their own?

Golden age or caricature?

A short season, The Vanishing Class, at London's National Film Theatre is showing television programmes from the archives and putting the case for a 'golden age' of working class realism in British television in the early 1960s. The organisers argue that nothing in today's mainstream can match the social realism of the 1960s single play, early episodes of Coronation Street or Z Cars.

Eastenders, on the other hand, has been getting a lot of good press on its anniversary. Its most powerful episodes have been compared to Cathy Come Home, and it's even been seen as 'heir to the radical values of social realism single dramas of the 1960s'.

Broadcasting was shaken up in the early 1900s. Up until the Second World War, the BBC regarded soaps and popular drama series as beneath them. Their mission was to civilise and educate, not entertain. An element of tension was introduced in the first hospital soap, ITV's Emergency Ward Ten, at the end of the 1950s.

But Coronation Street, which hit our screens in 1960, was a turning point. For the first time a series revolved around sympathetic working class characters with real, everyday problems. Within months it was rating 22 million viewers. Its writers actually knew something about northern working class life, and it didn't have the BBC's patronising tone.

The organisers of The Vanishing Class link early Coronation Street with the work of the 'northern realist' film makers, creators of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and Room at the Top. In the first episodes Ken Barlow struggled to come to terms with his background, chafing at the restrictiveness of it, guilty at the thought of leaving it for the middle class world of the university. These episodes reflect changes in working class life during the boom years. There was more money to be earned, a few more educational opportunities and more chance of getting out of the factory.

The handful of working class writers who got the chance to document these changes were the products of this changing world themselves. Their work uneasily combined pride at being given the chance, nostalgia for a 'lost' working class community and anger that things had not changed more. It was also a response to the growing confidence of workers in the boom years.

In this climate socialist writers like Tony Garnett had the room to make radical drama that dealt with contemporary issues almost every week. Plays like Cathy Come Home and Lena O My Lena didn't just present the authentic detall of working class life, they exposed its injustice. BBC managers were ambivalent. Ken Loach, who directed some of the plays, recalls, 'On the one hand they liked the fact that we were getting good audiences and winning some public interest, but they were also very nervous, as they always have been, about their relationship with politicians and beyond them.'

How does modern drama match up? Despite often being written and acted by working class people, Brookside and Eastenders present a very middle class view of working class communities. Brookside reflected very little of the struggles raging in the north of England during the miners' strike in 1984-85 and barely referred to the revolt of its native Liverpool council. Eastenders is dominated by small business people--publicans, cafe owners, market stallholders and shopkeepers. And while there is some personal conflict in its claustrophobic world, there's no class struggle here and the community is largely cut off from the rest of the world. This does not mean that we should idealise Coronation Street as authentically working class--it also portrayed workers from a middle class point of view. And all the soaps have a disproportionate number of the lower middle class.

Though both series have dealt sympathetically with gay rights, homelessness, drug abuse, violence in the family and so on, they tend to sensationalise the issues rather than explain them.

Partly this is because of the format. Soaps are perfect commercial television. They are cheap and easy to produce--one set, one set of costumes and a smooth, predictable production routine. The aim is a never ending storyline that will create a loyal audience. Competition breeds more and more outrageous storylines, but producers shy away from anything too challenging or controversial.

Soaps are shaped by the priorities of their production and the main priority has always been selling things. Coronation Street aimed to bring commercial television to a new working class audience. Brookside was launched to put Channel 4 on the advertisers' map and attract them away from ITV. Eastenders was an attempt to protect the BBC at a time when the licence seemed to be under threat.

All this takes its toll. After the first few explosive episodes, even the producers of Coronation Street wanted it toned down. Jimmy McGovern, who wrote a lot of episodes of Brookside, recently admitted that a story was vetoed for fear of upsetting advertisers in BUPA.

But class hasn't completely disappeared from the screens. Anyone who has watched Roddy's Doyle's Family or Dennis Potter's Lipstick On Your Collar will know that these are much more complete, realistic views of working class life than anything the soaps offer. But it is rare to see the reality of working life on television.
Chris Nineham
The Vanishing Class is at the National Film Theatre, London, during March

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