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.