When Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey premiered in 1957, it was remarkable for its abrupt rejection of the misleading romantic notions about class, race and sexual orientation that were lodged in the British cultural imagination. Written partly in response to Terrence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme, Delaney thought little of Rattigan’s coy, effete treatment of homosexual relationships. A Taste of Honey centres around the strong-willed Jo who, left alone one Christmas by her unreliable mother, gets pregnant by a young Nigerian sailor and is then cared for by her gay friend Geoffrey. Delaney, a ‘kitchen sink’ writer, helped to initiate a tradition of working-class people writing and performing drama that reflected the truth of their experience: her work contributed to creating a climate where it was no longer acceptable for a distant artistic elite to write the disempowered as they saw fit.
It is almost sixty years since A Taste of Honey was first performed; any ground claimed during its era is gradually being ceded. Delaney disrupted the traditional ways in which British working-class life was depicted. Now, in some corners of our culture, we are returning to a regressive status quo as certain examples of populist new writing lazily recycles tired, irrelevant tropes, and becomes the orthodoxy it was engineered to undermine. This deep lethargy, whereby depictions of working-class life are unable or unwilling to reflect modernity, is everywhere. It extends even to the most influential of postmodern British working class chronicles– Coronation Street. As Louise Lyle reflected on the paucity of graduates in Weatherfield: ‘On Coronation Street you’re more likely to suffer a violent death as a result of fire, explosion, a road traffic accident or homicide than to enrol at a university, much less graduate with a degree.’
This is far from an accurate reflection of working-class experience, given that in Britain the higher education participation rate has risen to 47% for young people. Perhaps the vastly increased presence of further education within these communities and the complications this entails for young people’s sense of identity would be the ripe issue to be examined. Yet Coronation Street continues to celebrate just one tiny aspect of what it is to be working class in Britain, defining the community it represents in perpetually narrow terms by myopically focussing on the slivers of that experience which bolster its outdated narrative.
This can be seen in the hidden intentions of certain cultural outlets that claim to portray, in however melodramatic a fashion, working-class life. Perhaps Coronation Street fulfilled the aims stated by its creator Tony Warren to explore ‘the driving forces behind life in a working-class street in the north of England’. But that was in the sixties. Now a more accurate interpretation of their function is to portray an outdated, stylised version of that reality – a version that celebrates that communities’ smallness and the height of the barriers that surround it, rather than a version which foregrounds an incredible potential. This is social exclusion hiding in plain sight. These simulacra dictate a sense of working-class identity composed from half-century-old clichés. Disguising such portrayals in a superficial language of authenticity and diversity masks the process by which outdated, unhelpful and sometimes ludicrous stereotypes are entrenched.
Some clear examples of this happening can be found amongst a recent spate of sitcoms dramatising the memoirs of Lenny Henry (Danny and The Human Zoo), Danny Baker (Cradle to the Grave) and Emma Kennedy (The Kennedys). All are set in the seventies, and the last of this list is set in my home town, Stevenage. The BBC press release describing the series calls it an ‘aspirational comedy’ where the Kennedy’s, who have just moved to the ‘concrete maze of identical houses’ that is Stevenage, New Town, are ‘delighted and enthused’ to find themselves ‘on the cusp of being considered middle class’.
Tellingly, Emma Kennedy writes of the series: ‘it is a celebration of our past, a positive affirmation of shared experiences and a rollicking recollection of what we believed to be the good old days’. She goes on: ‘I grew up on a council estate when they were places of aspirational wonder. Social housing was simply the greatest start in life a young family could have, and in The Kennedys I hope I have delivered a series that reflects that hope and joy.’ There’s evidence to suggest that this was the sole intention – its six episodes are warm, inoffensive and stoically obey the conventions of half-hour BBC comedies.
It is important, however, to distinguish between the positive intent and the actual function that The Kennedys and other sitcoms of its ilk perform. Kennedy writes that her aim was to showcase ‘eye boggling wallpaper, dodgy morals and shoes that make us question our very existence’. The Kennedys is more than that; it’s not just an exercise in ‘Remember that?’ banality. Instead, The Kennedys follows in a tradition of pastiche and nostalgia film discussed by the cultural critic Frederic Jameson in Postmodernism and Consumer Society. As Jameson contends, such works ‘do not represent our historical past so much as they represent our ideas or cultural stereotypes about that past’.
The events in The Kennedys, whilst nominally autobiographical, are exaggerated and rendered in such a way as to evoke not just the period detail of the seventies, but the attitudes towards working-class communities at that time. It reinforces the perceptions that were, and are, palatable for a detached, patrician establishment and impels a self-induced amnesia. The complexities and challenges of working-class reality in modern Britain are neatly erased, leaving only the prospect of the calm continuation of an morally bankrupt hierarchy.
These attitudes are displayed in a variety of familiar ways. First, we have the bumbling ineptitude of Tony Kennedy, father of narrator Emma, who in the first five minutes of episode one offers comfort to a crying woman by putting up shelves (because: men) and who later in the series makes a local boy take off his sock to use as a garter on his best friend’s wedding day. Then, there is his wife, Brenda, and her endearing small scale striving. Two episodes focus on her ‘hare-brained schemes’, which see her flustered and nugatory attempts to make a lasagne and organise a local talent competition. Finally, the actions of their ‘mad friend’ Tim (a feckless, drunk charlatan and philanderer) are both bananas and genuinely grotesque in equal measure.
Beyond these moments the characters are shown to be warm, positive people in many ways. It is not, by any stretch, wholly unflattering towards its subjects. But they are never allowed to have rich interior lives or ambitions beyond the hyper-local. They are the old-money romantic dream of the working class, needing only the comfort of the familiar and the warm glow of tiny aspirations that serve to narrow their horizons and actively entrench the status quo. It is basically inconceivable that this is an accurate portrayal of the people on whom the series, and the book that inspired the series, is based. If we accept that it isn’t then it’s troubling that this hammed-up depiction of working-class people is so in demand.
Perhaps it is so prevalent for two reasons, with the first being that it is comfortingly nostalgic in a traditional sense. Working class communities have been systematically degraded over the last three decades with wedges being driven between ‘skivers’ and ‘strivers’, racial divisions fostered by government policy and opportunistic right-wing upstarts, and the social safety net being cut out from under the most vulnerable members of society. Stevenage is not exempt from this. In 2014, the town was home to an incident that seems like the natural endpoint of recent welfare reform, when ex-army member David Clapson died from diabetes complications after his benefits were cut because officials ‘believed he was not taking his search for work seriously enough’. Yet The Kennedys reinforces the comforting, romantic idea of salt-of-the-earth communities. Its portrayal of a close-knit square of Stevenage housing feels like a calculated and wilful self-deception successful in hiding the real Stevenage, where disabled veterans ‘die penniless and alone’ after facing welfare sanctions.
Another– often unspoken– reason that this depiction is currently ubiquitous in mainstream culture is tied to the fact that the cultural gatekeepers are unprepared to countenance the reality of working-class experience today. By giving form to thirty-year-old stereotypes in a continuous slew of pastiche nostalgia sitcoms, we shield ourselves from the nuances, richness and difficulty of the present. Such sitcoms seek to comfort and distract but offer little in the way of nourishment, especially for those living in the communities they claim to represent. A reductive world, where people don’t know what lasagne is, can be packaged, swallowed and sold more readily than a town that encompasses pioneering technology award winners, visceral punk musicians and bleak poverty. If this nostalgic pastiche of working class life becomes the dominant mode of portraying this community’s experience, we run the cultural risk of getting trapped in a continuous stultifying seventies.