When I walk down the street in my old home-town I feel like a snob. I imagine there is a swamp just off the main drag somewhere which would explain the demeanour of many of the towns-people so primal do they seem in their designs. My clients who visit from afar often comment on it, even the lefties, leading me to question if perhaps our class sensibilities have become a tad bourgeois. Hearing about the recent BBC doc, The Scheme, which focussed on people from a Kilmarnock council estate then perhaps not.
I used to feel some compassion for the lo-lifers but it’s myself I feel sorry for now because most of them are a lot more comfortable in their skins than I am in mine. What’s more, I am invisible to them. They in their self-absorption are blind to my existence. For me they are everywhere in my vision.
When I heard about The Scheme my inclination was as it is to most reality television which is to stay clear. I have quite enough reality in my life as it is. I look to television, to the arts generally, for some un-reality, for a break from the relentlessness of ordinary life. I feel the same toward TV dramas which turn their voyeuristic eye on the lower society. I’m referring to the likes of Shameless which I couldn’t endure beyond a couple of episodes.
But dragged kicking and screaming to watch an episode of The Scheme I was pleasantly surprised. There were a few redemptive aspects. I saw a family occupied in having a disused community centre reopened. I felt sorry for an old lady dealing with a terminal illness. There were sassy teenagers and a cute dog and a guy going for a job interview trying to create a good impression in his Sunday best. That same guy was seen trying to get his daughter to toe the line. In other words, I saw the stuff of community life, the bad and the good. By comparison Shameless felt unrelenting in its gloomy stereotyping. Like a Ken Loach film it didn’t want to cosy up to any happy resolutions. Like Welsh’s Trainspotting it had no soft underbelly and was happy to take refuge in the darkest of possible humours.
I listened to an argument between Stewart Cosgrove and Pat Kane about The Scheme. Cosgrove pointed out how the arts in general use similar themes as subject matter so why shouldn’t documentary film-makers do the same. Kane’s reply was nuanced. These people are not characters. They’re being used as subject matter for a voyeuristic middle class sitting in the safety of their sofas, part disgusted, part intrigued, proud and happy they’re not like that.
I agree with Pat and go further. The entire breed of so called poverty porn, including the fictional stuff, is boring and distasteful to me. At least The Scheme for all its unwanted pregnancies, relationship break-ups, addictions, illnesses and criminality had redeeming qualities. You won’t see too many of the better-off in this town fighting to get community centres going. Civic life in Kilmarnock and many places like it has been abandoned by the middle class who have retreated to the safety of their fortified little castles.
So before passing judgement on the scum as they are still so unaffectionately labelled, I might check my own prejudices against Kilmarnock’s lower society. They have their story and the producers at BBC Scotland, cynical and exploitative as they are, told it quite well. I suggest the broadcaster’s next stop-off might be neighbouring Wardneuk where the middling types live in segregated splendour. Humans have a fascination for what lies under the stone whatever the social class. I’m sure there would be just as many inner family dramas to characterise there with similar plots and of similar pornographic value.
written 2010 about BBC Scotland's
documentary on a Kilmarnock housing estate