Schemes o’ mice and men

BBC Scotland’s showing a new documentary programme, The Scheme. If you’re in the UK you can watch it on iPlayer here. I’d love to know what you think of it.

For those of you who don’t speak Scotland, a scheme is a housing estate. This particular one is in the Onthank area of Kilmarnock, about half an hour southwest of Glasgow, and if you believe what you see on the programme it’s a pretty hellish place. Everyone appears to be on drugs, selling drugs, getting beaten up or beating up pregnant women.

Naturally a lot of people are appalled by this, arguing – quite rightly – that the programme makers have distilled a year’s worth of footage down to the most sensational stuff. People doing nice things or even normal things aren’t exactly riveting TV, so there’s precious little of that in the programme. What you get instead is a freak show, a “look at the funny poor people!” programme for the smug middle classes.

All perfectly true. And yet… I know, or rather knew, loads of people like the unfortunates in the first episode of The Scheme. Some of them in the town I grew up in, others as “clients” of the back-to-work training programmes I used to teach in Ayrshire and Clydebank in my previous, pre-writing life. And of course you don’t need to live in the West of Scotland to encounter similar characters.

They might not be the majority, but they do exist, and watching them makes for incredibly uncomfortable but compelling viewing.

Is it irresponsible for the programme makers to devote an entire episode to them without showing the positives? Is there a responsibility to do anything other than make an interesting programme? The local MSP says there is:

“The danger with programmes like this is that they give a misleading impression of an entire community. Featuring the chaotic lifestyles of one or two families might make for interesting TV but it does nothing to support the positive regeneration that has been going on in this community for the past few years.

Here’s a bit about it from The Scotsman newspaper.

FOR its part, the BBC said the documentary makers – the award-winning Friel Kean Films – had looked at various towns, before settling on Onthank due to the number of families who agreed to be filmed over a sustained period of time. A spokesman said The Scheme will look at a number of different families with a “mix” of stories.

While later episodes promise to capture some of the regeneration work in Onthank, concerns remain the picture will be one-dimensional. After watching the opening show, Paul Whitelaw, The Scotsman’s television critic, said that “it remains to be seen whether The Scheme has any purpose other than wallowing in their misery.”

That raises another question: should documentary series be balanced on a per-episode basis, or is it fine to show the other side of the story in separate episodes that people might not watch?

As I say, I’d love to know what you think.