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Hell in a handcart Media

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.

5 replies on “Schemes o’ mice and men”

One of our ex-neighbours from Beith lives there and was filmed as part of it, but they’re not using the footage as they reckon it’s not interesting enough (she said it’s cos they’re not junkies or alkies) and they’re giving it to them on DVD. (It’s got some weddingy stuff on it)

Presumably all these critics will be denouncing Michael Moore any minute now.

[tumbleweed]

That aside, they’re missing a huge bloody great point, which is that what it’s like to live in a neighbourhood (or a shared building or a nation or any group of people) depends on the worst residents. I’m pretty sure the majority of Iraqis aren’t planting bombs, but life in Baghdad right now is very much all about the bombings. I used to have a friend in Chateaulait, and her entire street was terrorised by one bad family, who would sneak into their neighbours’ houses through any windows that were left open, just to freak them out, and would even burn their neighbours’ cars on occasion. Strathclyde’s Finest’s response to 999 calls from that street — and there were a lot of them — was 90 minutes at best, if they turned up at all, and they eventually admitted that this was because they’d had one case (a murder, I believe) against this shitty family collapse and didn’t fancy their chances of getting the bastards behind bars unless they did something really nasty — so they had an unofficial policy of leaving them to it to ensure maximum crime and prosecutability rather than turning up and preventing things. It didn’t matter that every other house in that street was populated by fairly normal people, as decent as normal people generally are: life there was defined by the minority, and was hell.

High-crime areas are not areas where the majority of people are criminals. They are areas where the majority of people can’t do anything about the criminals.

I tend to watch these things from a different perspective, having been raised in a country where there is no social safety net and there is no welfare system – nothing which can be remotely compared to here at the very least. So what struck me when I was watching it was the astonishing level of state intervention which the residents needed just to get through one single month, as shown in just one street in one neighbourhood in one town in one part of the country. Social services, police, prisons, drug counsellors, parole officers, the courts, the council – and not one resident seems to be any better for it. The programme certainly begs the question which most of Scotland is doing everything in its power to avoid, which is, can a certain portion of the economy be driven solely by the chaotic lives of its residents.

I’m not ignoring this, just been a bit swamped and sore lately. I’ll come back to it soon, possibly after tonight’s episode :)

Okay, now the remaining episodes have been postponed due to one of the participants being up on an assault charge, the two episodes I’ve seen may well turn out to be the entire series. On that basis, I think it’s a typical modern fly on the wall documentary: it’s gone looking for “characters”, found them and given them lots of airtime.

It’s cynical, sure, there’s an element of poverty porn to it, but it’s no more cynical than, say, a Michael Moore doc. It’s yet another example of a genre where what’s left out is as important as what’s left in. I suspect few sensible people would agree to be filmed for that long in the first place, so what you end up with is a year in the life of attention whores and idiots, edited to make them look more whorish and idiotic. Of course it’s not representative: most people’s lives aren’t interesting enough to watch.

There’s been a lot of criticism of it – Tony’s Facebook wall was quite representative – but I wonder what makes this any different from, say, those documentaries where a pasty middle-class brit goes to South Central LA or to somewhere in the states full of poor fat people?

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